Two Lives

Take Me Apart BY Sara Sligar. New York: FSG/MCD. 386 pages. $27.

The cover of Take Me Apart

The characters in Sara Sligar’s Take Me Apart live in 2017, but it would be better to say that they live in “our contemporary moment,” a generic version of the Trump era, a time that artists and writers feel compelled to respond to, usually with “urgency.” They have baby-boomer relatives who suggest they stop trying to be journalists and go to law school. They’re saddled with student loans and credit card debt. They discuss intersectionality at parties and wear fanny packs “unironically.” They contend with workplace harassment and watch Vanderpump Rules reruns. Sligar, it seems, has added all the correct ingredients to create a book that will appeal to the left-leaning millennial reader. But the result feels less like a novel about actual people than a book designed by algorithm.

When the story begins, Kate Aitken, our protagonist, is on an airplane to California, where she has accepted a job archiving the papers of Miranda Brand, a famous Bay Area photographer who died in 1993, allegedly by suicide. Recently fired from her fact-checking job at a newspaper in New York after a mental breakdown precipitated by a sleazy superior, Kate hopes for a fresh start on the West Coast. Even on the trip over, however, there are hints that life in California may present its own difficulties. On the flight, she is seated next to an obnoxious passenger reminiscent of her toxic colleague; then, in the San Francisco airport, her suitcase is one of the very last to materialize, as if reluctant about the journey. When Kate arrives at the Brand house in the town of Callinas, she discovers that the collection she has been hired to organize is a teetering stack of mildewed and moldy paper that resembles “an entire town’s worth of recycling.”

The filth foreshadows the nasty and disturbing secrets that lurk in the archive. It also points, somewhat blatantly, to the book’s primary concerns: the chaos of the mind, and the disconnect between our private lives and the selves we present to the world. Miranda made her reputation as a trailblazing feminist artist known for taking frank, and sometimes lurid, self-portraits. But as her letters and diaries attest, behind closed doors she was depressed, abused by her husband, and exploited by her gallerist, who viewed Miranda as a cash cow rather than a human being. In a 1992 diary entry, one of many that appear as alternating chapters in the book, she laments:

Imagine if they really knew who I am, what I’ve put up with. Miranda Brand, a feminist! Took a man’s name, took his punches, let him hold her down. Then she turned around and told us she had it all figured out.

My photos are lies.

I never meant them that way. I cut deep into myself, I took myself apart, the way you have to, to produce anything.

Reading of the violence Miranda endured, Kate begins to question her suicide: Did the artist really kill herself, or is it possible that she was murdered?

This could have made for an enjoyable, well-paced thriller, but Sligar keeps tripping over her own attempts to seem ultracontemporary. Her portraits of 2017 are full of references that usually feel a little off, like this scene in which Kate and her friend Natasha go to a party in—where else—Bushwick: At around midnight, the music shifts “from indie electronic to nostalgia pop, the alcohol from microbrews to PBR, and an array of medical-grade joints [are] discreetly passed around.” The parties in Callinas are equally clichéd, filled with “loud chatter about property taxes and Lake Tahoe, kombucha starters and quinoa chips, the problems with Whole Foods but also how it offered so many options.”

Such lines are cringeworthy, but the bigger problem is Sligar’s one-dimensional treatment of contemporary social issues. Take Me Apart seems ready to tackle big topics—#MeToo, race and representation—but in the end it’s not clear what Sligar wants to say about them. Here, #MeToo is little more than a plot device, included so that Kate has a reason to go to California and become a sympathetic reader of Miranda’s letters. Ultimately, the scandal that leads the novel becomes just another obstacle to Kate’s romantic prospects.

The novel’s treatment of racial inequality is similarly superficial. Sligar includes a diverse roster of supporting characters who show up mainly to remind readers that, despite their struggles, Kate and Miranda occupy positions of social privilege. Natasha, for example, faces perpetual discrimination as a black lawyer; in an early chapter, she complains to Kate via FaceTime about being overlooked for a promotion, yet again, at her blue-chip firm, “the beads on her braids click[ing] against the floor” as she leans back on her couch. (Whether she ever receives a promotion, we never learn.) Later in the book, another woman of color, Sabrina, follows up with a lesson on erasure. “Miranda Brand got famous for doing a lot of stuff that other women do and never get credit for. Women of color,” she reminds us. “Most of what she got famous for had already been done better by other women, only they weren’t the kind of women who get profiled in The New Yorker or whatever.”

By trying so hard to please, with synthetic pop-culture asides and woke political takes, Take Me Apart overburdens the engrossing mystery at its heart. “Our contemporary moment” does call for an urgent response. Novels that tell people what the author thinks they want to hear are anything but.

Hannah Stamler is a Ph.D. student in history at Princeton University.