Shadows of a Doubt by Douglas C. MacLeod Jr.

Sketching with Renoir
By Nicole d’Entremont

Indie Author Books, 2023
$18.95   230 pp.

According to Neil Wynn, in his essay “‘The Good War’: The Second World War and Postwar American Society,” America’s participation in what was seen as a righteous conflict between good and evil reinvigorated a downtrodden country on the brink of disaster. Wynn writes of how Americans came together to thwart the Axis powers and, in turn, “ended the Depression, brought social harmony, and created the basis for an affluent society” where “America emerged unscathed and triumphant” from what truly was a horrific experience. 

That was the perception. 

The truth, however, was quite different. “Some positive views of the war’s effects blur many of the realities of wartime tensions and conflicts,” Wynn explains. Those issues included class conflicts, racial tensions, and a pervasive misogyny, which led to shifting family dynamics, among other forms of cultural and spiritual struggle.

In Nicole d’Entremont’s new novel Sketching with Renoir, not all, but many of these issues are successfully brought to the fore, in that characters are seemingly walking through life with blinders on, believing a “normal life” can continue after war but knowing deep down that this pipe dream is an utter impossibility. (As a side note, d’Entremont is a contributor to Today’s American Catholic.) Reading like a 1950s dramatic film, the book weaves multiple stories together of individuals believing all is just fine when, in actuality, underlying sufferings are bubbling just beneath the surface, ready to rear their ugly heads. It is this unceasing slow burn that gives Sketching with Renoir both its power and its poignancy.

The novel takes place in fictional 1947 Loganville, Pennsylvania, and starts with Evelyn “Ev” Boudreau, one of d’Entremont’s several protagonists, sketching Renoir’s Reclining Nude while her inquisitive daughter, Cleo, and rambunctious dog, Kip, fruitlessly run around the house to train for the Deeter Rod. It is quite clear from the beginning that Ev is a struggling artist attempting to manage her own identity while also being a doting mother and loving wife to her architect husband, Theo. Theo is moving up in his professional career while Ev, who is just as ambitious and strong-willed, is trying to keep her family fed while attempting to maintain what she wants to be her livelihood. Figuratively, she is the beaten-down, obedient wife of a post–World War II husband who is scared to lose his place in the American patriarchal, capitalist order. Her life is devoted to her marriage and motherhood; his life is devoted to his work.

As a writer, d’Entremont is most effective in the moments where she presents Ev as trying to manage Cleo’s questioning spirit and insatiable appetite while also attempting to artistically capture a moment in time, similar to when the Impressionists would try to pull off the same feat some one hundred years before. A beautiful example of a moment like this is when Ev tries to paint a dwindling, fiery sunset but first has to make Cleo a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to ensure that she is preoccupied. The scene is presented as a race against time, and with every passing second, Ev’s desperation and exhaustion become palpable in d’Entremont’s prose.

Sketching with Renoir is equally effective in the moments where Ev, after finding out she is pregnant with her second child, decides to convert to Roman Catholicism. D’Entremont never makes this aspect of the novel a focal point; however, what makes Ev’s conversion so important to the narrative is that converting equals conforming. Much of Loganville and its citizens seem frozen in time and faithful to a fault; the town and those who live in it are American stereotypes of what it means to have perfect families, and Ev, who is a free spirit, is now going to comply with what is expected of her. Roman Catholicism, thus, is representative of “the norm,” which at times is a dangerous standard in that if one does not conform to it, they may be shunned, whether literally or figuratively. 

Gerald Keenan, another protagonist in the novel, is a wealthy but crippled carpet store owner who spent his early years trying to be married to a woman prior to becoming a World War I soldier. While serving, a “bullet angled through his left buttock, nipping an artery in his right leg.” As he was recuperating at the hospital, he saw a “startlingly handsome” British soldier who ended up noticing him as well: “Keenan had suspicions about himself that the war only intensified.” His identity as a closeted gay man, readers later learn, is not the only secret he is hiding. Throughout the novel, Keenan is introspective about his life and his loves, until finally he feels it necessary to speak about them to ensure he is absolved of a long-standing guilt: the truth shall set him free.

Moments of disclosure like these are fleeting in Sketching with Renoir, but when they come about, they are jarring and shocking. Very much like the films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock (one thinks of Shadow of a Doubt), and even David Lynch (Blue Velvet), underlying the pleasant exterior that houses macaroni casserole, picket fences, and Christmastime preparations are disabling lies, feelings of inadequacy and despair, and characters trapped usually by their own devices.

Impressionism, as an art form, often features unconventional representations of suburban and rural landscapes, occasionally infiltrated by the modern and the industrial. According to Margaret Samu, in an essay published for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Impressionists were independent painters and sketch artists who used “short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light” to present a casual style that was seemingly improvised but was actually rigorously constructed. On the surface, Impressionist paintings looks simple and carefree, but a great deal of complex technique goes into their composition. The same can be said about Sketching with Renoir, a written work with simplicity of style and a great deal of nuance. D’Entremont brilliantly creates a Thornton Wilder-esque town filled with aunts and uncles, general store owners, families down the street, doctors that make house calls, and pious religious figures willing to pray for you and your tainted soul—while also recognizing that these same smiling townsfolk may have skeletons in their closets and complicated pasts that follow them like shadows in the night. ♦

Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod Jr. is an associate professor of composition and communication at SUNY Cobleskill. He has written multiple book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles, and book reviews throughout his almost 20-year career as an academic and teacher. Recently, he has had essays published in Childhood and Innocence in American Culture: Heartaches and Nightmares (Lexington Books); Holocaust vs. Popular Culture: Interrogating Incompatibility and Universalization (Routledge); and Film as an Expression of Spirituality: The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). He lives in Upstate New York with his wife, Patty, and his dog, Cocoa Love.

Image: Chloe Herriot / Unsplash

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