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Paint it Black by Janet Fitch

A Meandering Journey

If you’re going to pick a title for your novel from a Rolling Stones song, you pretty much tell the reader right off the bat what kind of ride they can expect. “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)” will probably jazz someone electing to read on a Friday night while “Miss You” could offer a nice Sunday afternoon spent reading on the porch. So when you see “Paint it Black” you are either expecting a roller coaster ride with lots of lead singer preening and fun or you are expecting a descent into Hell. The problem with this book is that it isn’t the former and it’s not quite the latter.

Here, we meet Josie Tyrell, a twenty-year old art model living in Echo Park (before it was trendy in 1980) and her boyfriend Michael, an artist and Harvard drop-out. Within the first ten pages Michael kills himself. There is no indication of foul play. The mystery then becomes the “why.” Josie asks this a lot but she never really does anything to answer the question. If the book were film noir, we would revel in the investigation of a death brought on so early in the plot.

Fitch isn’t really interested in providing that strategem. Most of the book is devoted to Josey’s wanderings -- trying to carry on with her semi-punk lifestyle (if wearing Goodwill clothes, popping Reds, and listening to the Cramps is all that is required for the recipe). She also rehashes her time spent with Michael whom she loves if for no other reason that she is sure that he is a genius and she is not.

Fitch encapsulates Josie’s personality beautifully when she says: “She was the kind of girl someone drove by and honked the horn at and asked to stay for a beer or some ludes and fucked and sent home. “ In Josie’s eyes, Michael has the pedigree and she has none. Yet Michael has a skewed relationship with his mother and no friends of his own. After Michael’s death, Josie finds herself drawn to his mother, Meredith, both to learn why Michael might have killed himself and to experience what Michael might have felt having Meredith for a mother.

Paint it Black is the highly anticipated follow up to Fitch’s White Oleander, a book so wonderful that it should be required reading for any teenage girl and some of the boys too. It resounded with readers because scenes were not only beautifully rendered, but there was a wonderful balance between character psychology and things actually happening in the outer world. Unfortunately, Paint It Black is like reading someone’s journal where the pain is obvious, but nothing is set in motion expect the dwelling on that pain.

Somewhere in Paint it Black there needed to be suggestions of beauty as the Rolling Stones would say in “Emotional Rescue”: a smile relieves a heart that grieves. By the time the smile appears, we’re tired of the record skipping.

Paint it Black by Janet Fitch
Little Brown and Company
September 18, 2006
Hardcover, $24.99
ISBN: 0-316-18274-5
387 pages