Books Are Pretty

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Bowl Is Already Broken

Mary Kay Zuravleff’s The Bowl Is Already Broken is what the more intellectual among us will be taking to the shore for beach reading in lieu of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. Like Weisberger’s bestseller, The Bowl Is Already Broken covers a topic the author knows inside and out – her job. Prada is filled with juicy gossip about the inside and infighting of the fashion world at one of its top magazines, while Bowl revolves around juicy gossip about the inside and infighting at one of the world’s top museums. Both are packed with enough information to let the reader know they really have a firm grasp on their subject matter, but that’s where the similarities end.

The Bowl Is Already Broken begins in disaster. Promise Whittaker, the petite acting director of Washington D.C.’s Museum of Asian Art, (a thinly veiled Arthur M. Sackler Gallery), is heading up a ceremony with various invited dignitaries to receive a million dollar porcelain bowl. It is her first event as acting director, and the worst possible thing that could happen, happens. Part one of the book revolves around the six months preceding the calamity, and Zuravleff painstakingly and seamlessly weaves each individual thread of the novel’s scheming characters together before presenting, at the end of part one, that there’s much more to the initial disaster than meets the eye.

Early in the novel, Museum director R. Joseph Lattimore receives a carelessly worded memo that describes, almost as an afterthought, the plans to dismantle his museum and replace it with a food court. Naming Promise as his heir, Lattimore quits, and he and his wife Emmy take off to the Taklamakan Desert, a land rife with civil unrest, to participate in an archeological dig. The book then flashes back and forth between Promise and Joseph, contrasting and comparing the struggles they face. Promise, who up until now has had her nose buried firmly in ancient texts of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, now must bury her nose in one personal disaster after another: the unsympathetic Asian Art curator Min Chen, who embezzled museum funds to pay for her uninsured fertility treatments, Chinese porcelain curator Arthur, his bitterness that he was not made curator battling with his fondness for Promise, sleeps with narcissistic coworker Talbot in order to acquire Talbot’s exhibition money for his own use, and her own out of control personal life, complete with an unplanned pregnancy. Oh, yes, and her increasingly desperate measures to save the museum from turning into a fast food Chinese restaurant called Wok On.

As the infighting grows, one begins to look forward to the parts of the novel that are focused on Joseph, and his peaceful, simple kidnapping at the hands of religious fundamentalists and the subsequent bludgeoning that follows.

The white stem bowl looked especially pure. Slightly deeper and stockier than a champagne glass, it had a thin flared lip and thin parallel grooves cut into the stem. But wait! There’s more! Promise leaned close enough to fog the case with her breath. The bowl was lighly carved with elaborate motifs of its own: floral sprays and lotus blossoms as well as the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism…Look and then look again: this was exactly what an exhibition was supposed to inspire.

Zuravleff manages to do pretty much the same in her novel, too. Unlike such novels as The DaVinci Code, where the overly dramatic twists and turns are broadcast larger than life and each chapter ends in a cliffhanger, Bowl builds its intrigue quietly letting the reader ferret out each character’s plots and intrigues as they make their plans for their own personal power.

It reads as cool and dry as a museum, almost a bit too cool. The book did not click into place until I mentally cast Holly Hunter as Promise and Rupert Everett as her coworker, curator Arthur. Then it caught on for me, and I enjoyed the multiple story lines Zuravleff spun out, as well as the education on Asian art history that she seemed eager to impart to her readers. Although I can see how the endless stories about the Persian poet Rumi or the evolution of the glazing process used by ancient Chinese craftsmen could become tiresome, nerds such as myself may appreciate an education from someone as knowledgeable as the author. (My favorite historical bit was the story of Mir Ali, the distinguished 14th century calligraphist who was abducted from his home and his family to be a court scribe in Bukhara. He wrote his laments onto pieces of paper, which somehow survived to the present day: "I have no way out of this town/ this misfortune has fallen on my head for the beauty of my writing./ Alas! Mastery in calligraphy has become a chain on the feet of this demented one.")

With the exception of one extraordinarily ham-handed metaphor – on the day that Promise finds out that is she is both the new Acting Director and pregnant, Promise winds up the day by literally juggling – Zuravleff maintains her cool, detached touch throughout. (Much better was the part bookmarked for me by the publisher’s publicist with a note that read “Any mom could relate to this scene.” A scene of hungry children and a feces-smeared dog coupled with the exhaustion of early pregnancy? Yep, the publicist was right. Been there.)

If this light touch is what you’re looking for in a novel, The Bowl Is Already Broken is the book for you. Just skip over that juggling scene on pages 156 and 157 and you’ll be just fine.

The Bowl Is Already Broken
By Mary Kay Zuravleff
Picador Press, 2006
451 pages
ISBN 0-312-42498-1

| StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!