Twenty-four year-old graduate student and painter Mark Hollander has only a dim idea what he’s looking for as he opens his apartment door that October morning, but he knows what he finds: the spritely blonde from down the hall, clearly the culprit who’s been stealing his newspaper. There’s a sparkle to this young woman whose self-possession and vitality allow Mark to overlook her petty theft and invite Holly McIvey to share his Sunday papers over coffee. Soon the 20 year-old runaway and the University of Pittsburgh art student are living blissfully together in a poverty only slightly relieved when Mark takes a night-time bartending job in a Shadyside cocktail lounge frequented by a colorful menagerie of regular customers, and Holly receives an unexpected windfall that enables her to enroll in college.
Deep in poverty but even deeper in love, Mark and Holly marry, and toward the end of her senior year Holly becomes pregnant. Idyllic as their life together seems, Mark vaguely senses clouds approaching their world. Holly seems haunted by unvoiced childhood memories while Mark is haunted by his inability to provide adequately for his wife and child. The pregnancy itself evokes an ominous feeling that the impending changes in their lives will alter their intense but childlike joy.
After they receive their degrees, their son just born, Mark and Holly realize that Pittsburgh offers little hope of a future, far less than Florida's west coast, where Mark's parents have just retired. They pack four-month-old Ben and all they own into their rickety car and head south. Professionally, Florida does indeed prove fertile, but after Holly takes a job as counselor in a women's shelter their personal lives begin to fork. They make friends separately rather than together, and Holly grows steadily distant, even as she gains more control of her life and a deeper understanding of the unspoken demons from her early childhood.
Mark begins teaching at a small Tampa college where he forms a variety of friendships with colleagues and students and starts to grow as an artist, yet he watches with increasing fear and pain the implacable distance creeping between him and Holly that moves steadily toward the divorce that will cost him not only Holly but, even more painful to him, his son. Days after Ben's second birthday, Holly makes clear, in the most painful way she can, that the marriage is over.
Just as Mark is wallowing in despair over the end of his marriage, three weeks after the separation a mutual friend tells Mark that, after protracted agonizing with the decision, Holly has decided it would be best if Mark raises Ben. Within a week, Mark begins a new life as a single father.
Mark is by now involved in a network of friendships and mentor relationships: with his empathic photographer colleague Catherine Rimbaud, his brilliant art student Beth Stephenson and her affable if far from brilliant friend Crash Pettrone, his quirky next-door neighbor Karen and her baseball-loving son, with now long-distance Pittsburgh friends poet Steve Matheson and Mark’s former model Julie Vidal, with the everpresent images of his early art teachers Joe Davalillo and Paul Stein, but most of all with his toddler son Ben. Through these relationships, slowly but steadily Mark starts to recognize the pattern his life has taken from a youthful innocent joy through a dark night of personal loss and pain and now slowly into a higher realm of understanding.
Yet can Mark grow enough to be the father, artist, teacher, and person he hopes to be, or will he struggle on just doing the best he can?
This amiable novel from National Book Critics Circle Citation-finalist Andy Solomon provides a rich blend of zesty wit and deeply-felt emotion as it charts the subtle textures of both how we connect with those most deeply ingrained in our lives and how we struggle to bring to full ripeness the creative potential in our basic nature.