book review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

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BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough
★★☆☆☆
Dutton Books, March 2018

I really wanted to love this book. I studied art history extensively in college, I love Artemisia Gentileschi, and the promise of a story from her perspective was so tantalizing that I ended up ignoring my suspicions that this book was going to be too young and too heavy-handed for me. I really should have listened to my gut on this one.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, whose works are often overshadowed by the fact that she was raped by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. She and her father Orazio took him to trial and eventually won the case, though she was subjected to torture to verify her claims, and Tassi only served two years in prison before his release. Blood Water Paint is a novel in verse told from Artemisia’s perspective, which focuses mainly on her rape and the subsequent trial, which explores the way she drew on the biblical figures Susanna and Judith for inspiration.

Look, I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I could not agree more with McCullough’s indictment of the patriarchy, her lament of how women are treated in society, the parallels between Artemisia’s circumstances and the #MeToo movement. The problem is, she sacrifices subtlety and authenticity at the altar of these ideas. This book is one of the most maddeningly simplistic, binary, melodramatic, and anachronistic things I’ve ever read. While the word ‘feminism’ never appears in this book (thankfully – not because I don’t like the word feminism, but because it isn’t a concept yet in in the seventeenth century), we do see a lot of hot-button issues that we’ll all recognize, like:

(Why, though, does it take
a mother, daughter, sister
for men to take
a woman at her word?)

and:

If I wait it out, he’ll go.
I learned this as a child:

When boys pull your hair,
it means they like you.
Just ignore them.

… which, I’m sorry, but narrated from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl in 1610 just strike me as laughably unbelievable. Not because these aren’t universal, timeless ideas, but because they’re stated so eloquently by this character who I hesitate to even refer to as Artemisia because she is so transparently a mouthpiece for the author.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a historical novel that focuses mainly on themes which don’t have an established vocabulary or some kind of developed social discourse at the time the book is set. I recently read and loved On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which deals primarily with asexuality in a time before the term was coined, and the way McEwan handled the subject was done with subtlety and brilliance. I guess I was just looking for more of this here, I was hoping for a more nuanced and intellectually stimulating rumination on the themes in this book, rather than having everything stated so plainly and positively shoved down the reader’s throat. (I mean, I guess it’s also worth noting that Blood Water Paint is YA, so maybe I’m being unfair here, but I’d argue that it’s even more unfair to posit that YA doesn’t have the capacity to be more nuanced than this.)

There’s also another element to this whole thing that admittedly grates on me. As I’ve said, I really love Artemisia Gentileschi. But the way she’s become a cipher for contemporary feminism I think does a disservice to the complexity of her character, as well as to the sundry other groundbreaking female artists we tend to overlook in holding Artemisia up as this feminist poster child. So when I say that I wasn’t impressed with the research and historical accuracy in this novel, I’m not trying to be some kind of academic purist. It just felt like the author had seen a tumblr post about how ‘Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes!!!1! Badass feminist ICON!!!!’ and spun the novel out of this half-formed idea of who Artemisia actually was. The few times the art itself is referenced also suggests to me that McCullough is out of her depth. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, please pick up one of the many brilliant biographies written about Artemisia, notably those by Mary Garrard.

So, to wrap up this novel length review (sorry, thanks for sticking with me): This is a book of (relevant, necessary) 21st century feminist concepts that try to masquerade themselves as Artemisia Gentileschi’s story at the expense of narrative, character development, and subtlety, which I felt ultimately did a disservice to its protagonist. But clearly I do not hold the majority opinion about this book, and that is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant and eloquent reviews which discuss this book’s virtues, if that’s what you’re looking for.

19 thoughts on “book review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

  1. I’ve been vacillating between wanting to read this because I’ve heard it’s great, and being afraid to because of the issues you pointed out. I actually don’t know much about Artemisia Gentileschi, but I think I’ll pass on this one (at least for now) and instead look for a good biography.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s definitely the course of action I’d recommend! Though to be fair YA is really not my cup of tea on the best of days, so I can see where this wouldn’t have been quite so intolerable for someone who’s more forgiving of younger books. But even so, this really missed the mark for me. Definitely better books about Artemisia out there!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wasn’t aware of this book, and as soon as I started reading the concept I thought, ‘yes please, give it to me’, but having read your whole review (and those excerpts) I suspect I’d be left feeling the same way, sadly. It’s a shame, as the concept holds so much promise, and Gentileschi is indeed an artist deserving of proper, nuanced representation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh RIGHT?! Despite the fact that ‘YA novel in verse’ isn’t a huge selling point for me I was so in love with the premise that I had to give it a fair chance. But, ugh, 300 pages of that kind of writing was doing my head in. Never has such a short book felt so long.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always feel frustrated when a YA book lets me down, because on the one hand I think, this wasn’t really meant for me, so fair enough; but on the other hand, it bothers me that some authors feel they need to pander to a younger audience. A teenager picking up a book written in verse about an Italian artist from the 17th century CLEARLY has the emotional and cultural maturity to handle a little depth, nuance and originality in their literature.

        Liked by 1 person

      • YES this 1000%. Usually I won’t Go Off like this with YA because I like to respect that I’m not the target audience but at the same time…. books like this were why I didn’t read YA when I was a teenager?! The feeling of being patronized was even more grating when I was in my ‘take my seriously’ angsty teenage phase.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly! I mean, I get that there’s a place for YA on the ‘easy’, readable side of things, since it’s good escapism and ideal for reluctant readers, but COME ON, it’s insulting how little some writers/publishers expect of their young readers. Books that push them are equally important, if not more so. (It’s hardly a crazy concept; the same applies to all ages really 💁🏼‍♂️)

        Liked by 1 person

      • YES amen! Let’s credit young people with a bit of intelligence. And mature and readable are not mutually exclusive! Sadie is a great example, I read it in two sittings but at the same time it was very emotionally complex. Blood Water Paint took me way too long to get through because the patronizing tone was too irritating to immerse myself in for long periods.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Drives me mad when this happens, the anachronistic articulation of 21st-century Ishoos. There’s an amazing novel I read recently called The Madonna of the Mountains which does the opposite; it deals with things like domestic violence and coercion, but the protagonist is such a fully formed character that you really feel like you’re inside the head of an uneducated European woman in the mid-1920s, with all of the internalised victim-blaming and resignation; and her suffering doesn’t feel like the point of her life, anyway. It’s most impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it the most grating thing in the world? McCullough even used the word “teenager” at one point, I just could not stop rolling my eyes.

      I remember your review of that book because I added it to my TBR after, but this has made me even more excited to pick it up! And it’s read-now on Netgalley so I’m in luck. I’m really looking forward to it, I need a good historical fiction novel to cleanse from this anachronistic mess.

      Like

  4. Even though I haven’t even read this book, I feel like I’d just agree with everything you said anyway. Historical fiction that lacks anachronistic subtlety is SUCH a pet peeve, I felt frustrated just reading your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh, right?! There’s literally a line:

      Piazzas, churches
      named for a teenager
      who gave life to the Christ.

      THIS SEVENTEENTH CENTURY NARRATOR REFERS TO MARY AS ‘A TEENAGER’ IM SCREAMING

      But yes, same, I’m not a stickler for historical accuracy as much as like… historical authenticity? If it’s historical fiction it needs to FEEL historical and this didn’t for even a second.

      Liked by 1 person

      • AHHHHH NO I HATE IT!!!!! Teenagers were not even a THING then alkaflkjflj

        Like even if a book is historically accurate, it doesn’t feel accurate if it doesn’t feel historical, so like….why write historical fiction if not to spend time in that part of history??

        Liked by 1 person

      • ‘TEENAGER’ WASN’T A CONCEPT UNTIL LIKE THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY DJSKLFDSJ I HATE IT!!!

        Omg I KNOW when I encounter books like this that are so historically anachronistic I’m just like, why did the author even go to the effort of dressing this up as a historical novel when it could have served its purpose so much better as a contemporary?! Ugh I need to read some good historical fiction to cleanse.

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  5. I absolutely love this review, and you put all my thoughts into words so eloquently. We’ve already talked about how we feel about using narratives and characters as concepts, so I’ll just reinstate that it’s stupid 😂 Amazing review!

    Like

    • It’s not the sort of thing I’d normally gravitate toward either, had it been a different historical figure. I’m just especially drawn to anything and everything having to do with art history. More fool me. It was such a waste of a couple of hours, I should have just picked up a biography instead.

      Liked by 1 person

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