The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins
Synopsis (from Publisher’s Weekly): The book opens as Wiggins presents her newly completed Curtis novel to a Hollywood agent. Curtis photographed American Indians in the early 20th century, and Marianne attacks the common image of Curtis as a swashbuckler who risked his life to photograph his favorite subjects. Even as she shows that Curtis staged the shots, and was an absentee husband and father at best, the agent is enthralled. Marianne, ambivalent, arrives home to a phone call that her father is in a Las Vegas hospital—the father who has been dead for 30 years…
Review: This will be a difficult work to encompass in a review since The Shadow Catcher is truly unique – in form, in narrative style, in subject matter, in my reaction.
The “Shadow Catcher” is a photographer, Edward Curtis, who became known for his portraits of Native Americans. This narrative thread follows what his life and marriage might have been like, based on the research and supposition of a woman who has spent many years in rapt fascination of this man. Another narrative thread follows the narrator’s quest to have her research come to life – possibly as a film—as well as her quest to solve the mystery of a dying man who claims to be her father (even though her actual father died long ago of suicide).
Now, as confusing as the above paragraph may seem, the actual novel is deftly structured and easy to follow. Wiggins’ love of the United States is revelatory — especially the glorious and insightful first section.
However, I was never as drawn to Edward Curtis as the writer was and struggled to find a foothold in this storyline. If Wiggins had actually been portraying what Curtis’s life was truly like, I think I would have been hooked. But since she was guessing at what he might have been, I didn’t feel the authenticity of this storyline. In addition, Curtis was not a likeable or sympathetic character and I often felt impatient, yearning to return to the researcher’s life in the present. But once I did, the narrator quickly became too reflective – too self-reflexive – and lost me, too.
However, I LOVED the first five pages when she explored the power of perspective, of flying, of travelling through the great, glorious expanse of our country. But after the first section, I never felt as if the novel lived up to its early promise. Curtis was so unlikeable – and while his wife was very likeable, she fell into an extremely ill-conceived marriage that was bound to fail from the first moment – and the author was just too focused on her own thoughts and fears and eventually I found her musings tedious.
So, while I love how truly unique this novel is on so many levels, my experience reading it dragged a bit. This novel was heralded as one of the very best of 2007, so I would love to hear other thoughts!