The Italian Teacher

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 20 May 2018

Member Reviews

I have yet to be disappointed by Tom Rachman.  It's only his third book, but I much preferred this to something like, say, The Goldfinch.  Such great writing and character building.
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A fascinating, well written  novel and an author who lives up  to the promise of his previous best-sellers.
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A wonderful book that, unlike many contemporary ones, gives the reader a basically decent man who never gives up in his attempts to find the affirmation he never received from his father. The author's solution to Charles' predicament is clever and very satisfying, and the send-up of the "art world" and the art market patrons is delivered with a subtle, light touch that is still quite funny.
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I enjoyed the writing in The Italian Teacher, and appreciated Pinch as a detailed and authentically flawed character, but I couldn’t seem to engage with the story until about the last third of the book.
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Charles (Pinch) may never live up to his father's (Bear's) expectations. His father is a well-known artist who's affairs and marriages create problems for his son. But their on-again, off-again relationship intrudes on everything Pinch does in his life. This is a story of a father/son love/hate relationship, but it's also a fierce commentary on the art world and how art & artists are valued. 

All the main characters are appealing, if sometimes insufferable. As Pinch grows up and ages, he sees his father in different ways and Pinch's reactions are sometimes extreme. I loved this story despite some gut-wrenching and heart stopping moments. From the sometimes critical (scathing!) descriptions of how the art world values art and artists to the self-destructive methods Pinch sometimes employs, this is a book filled with moments that books clubs will love to discuss. There are few happy endings here, but the story is satisfying none-the-less. Well worth the time to read and discuss.
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I started off engrossed, interested, and with great expectations, then my interest was deflated and I ultimately couldn’t have cared less. This book is populated by the neediest people who plod on and on. 

I have read the reviews and have nothing of significance to add. The following are a few of the thoughts that stayed with me.

“Destruction is a relief as completion never can be. But it is his completion, his destruction, his relief.”  

“human connections are the refuge of those who couldn’t make art. Now he suspects art is the refuge of those who cannot connect.”

“Events were not beyond his control, but he just couldn’t have been other than what he was” 

He believed he had achieved what he deserves.

Longing for attention, for love from a father who only ever acknowledged owning him. Is there solace in realizing the roles have reversed?

Thank you NetGalley and Viking for a copy
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I’m a huge fan of Tom Rachman, and think he is so on point with his searing prose, and delicate balance of observation and psychology.  The character study is fantastic and should be read by all.
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Charlie, nicknamed Pinch, was one of 13 children born to his famous painter father, Bear Bavinsky and various wives, and it’s hinted that he is not unlike Picasso in that department.  Charlie’s mother, Natalie, is an artist struggling to make a living with her art pottery.  The two of them live in her squalid studio in Italy where Bear comes and goes.  Pinch shows a proclivity for languages and studying them seems to be his antidote for loneliness.  At one point Bear had given Pinch an art lesson and Pinch runs with it.  He paints obsessively in his mother’s studio, hoping for his father’s approval and recognition, but when Bear sees a sample of Pinch’s work, he is dismissive, crushing Pinch.

Pinch graduates from college and makes plans with his girlfriend to get PhDs together, only when she gets admitted and he doesn’t, she goes and he doesn’t.  His adult life is a series of broken friendships and disappointing relationships, having never learned social skills from his parents or how to be a friend.  At his lowest his writes a letter to his grandmother which was really an affectionate essay about his mother, but she never responded. “Nobody bothers to respond to me.  I’m bitter.  Bitter about everything” he thinks.  In an unexpected turn of events, he becomes an Italian teacher at a language school, something he is surprisingly good at.

His famous father jealously guards his works, won’t sell, won’t let anyone see his unsold body of work, hoping to drive up the prices.  He anoints Pinch as guardian of his estate after he dies.  “These relations of mine.  Sniff a profit and - I hate to say it - they turn into goddamn rats.” He callously never invites any of his children to his art shows, just Pinch, who tries to be everything Bear expects of him.  It surprises him when he returns to painting and since Bear no longer visits his studio, Pinch spends his vacations there engrossed in his painting, which he keeps a secret from everyone.  A very important secret.

Late in life Pinch realizes “How amazing my mother and father were!  All those years, all their bullying doubts, all in the paltry hope that strangers might someday stand before their work and look, probably no longer than a few seconds.  That’s all they were fighting for.  What driven lives.”

Rachman has given us an inside look at the art world where selected works command sky-rocket prices and where duplicity is a frequent concern.  The final paragraph is priceless.  The humor throughout is dark and I laughed.
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This is as much of a novel about the value of art as it is about the value of friends and family.  Extremely well written.
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I enjoyed this one as an artist myself. Very fun and intriguing.
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I absolutely love this cover and let’s face it I have a thing for basing books on being added to my TBR by the blurb and the cover. If it has a bad cover or a blurb I probably won’t read it because it’s supposed to represent the book as a whole and if they can’t do a suitable representation, then why should I read it? 

I did have struggles with this book and had to put it down multiple times because I was so frustrated. I do not care for Bear or the way he treats his multiple children and wives. I believe he is a stereotypical representation of artists and that lends to creating a new trope. You know what I’m talking about, the artist who is self-centered and uncaring. The artist who puts his work in front of everything else and nothing can compare, who has a lot to say but nothing of worth in the message. I know several artists and though they may not be completely renowned in the world I feel like this is a bad representation of the community. At the same time, I understand this portrayal is to shed light on how his son Pinch treats Natalie because this is all he’s known his entire life. However, that doesn’t make it right. Also, I do not care for the character names which also caused me to take forever to read this book. 
There are parts of this book that are so sad and gut-wrenching that I found myself questioning why the author chose to go that route. I’m not sure who I would recommend this book to because I did not fully understand the message or relate to any of the characters. It was at a read and I would not wish that on anyone who cannot appreciate it. 
Thank you for allowing me access to this title I’m sorry that I cannot appreciate it or understand the overall gist of the character development.
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The first 80% reminded me of the Great Santini, but Rachman had something better, nicer in store for the coda. Can artists be parents? Perhaps not too well.
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I received an advanced readers copy in exchange for an honest review. I found myself having a hard time getting through this book because I really did not care for Bear.  I understand that as a narcissist, his egotism and self-centeredness is kind of the point, but I don’t think I liked him as much as the author wanted me to. I find myself skimming through the parts with him in it, which gave me a somewhat reduced engagement with the other characters. Pinch, the son, I felt for him, but it was hard for me to fully understand his need to prove himself to a father that was so unlikable. The book is well written and the author does a great job of setting the book in a variety of unusual times and places. 3.25 stars.
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I wanted to like this but I just couldn't. stand Charlie's ranting, so I stopped reading. After I stopped, it was interesting to see the review of this book in the WSJ. Perhaps I shouldn't have stopped as he said there was a shift in tone toward the end but he also thought it should have come earlier.  Unfortunately, it was too late for me to continue..
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I love the colorful, vibrant cover of THE ITALIAN TEACHER by Tom Rachman. Unfortunately, I did not really care for the characters.  There is Bear Bavinsky, a painter who destroys much of his own work and fathers 17 children with numerous wives; plus, his son Charles, called Pinch and the Italian teacher of the title, who is born in 1950 and never seems to please his father. In fact, their names reflect my impressions: Bear is extremely self-centered and domineering while Pinch never seems to come into his own, failing at art. art history and personal relationships. Other works by Rachman include The Imperfectionists (2010) and The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (2014).
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“The moneyed all speak of art, the artists all speak of money.”  

This is an unusual novel. Usually, the protagonist has a goal and has to overcome obstacles to achieve that goal. In this book, none of main characters are admirable. Bear Bavinsky is a celebrated artist when the story begins in 1955, but he treats the endless stream of women in his life like crap and ignores the seventeen children he has with wives and girlfriends and mistresses because he’s such an important artist he can’t be bothered.

One of his wives is Natalie, a potter who isn’t quite right in the head. Their son, Charles, or Pinch, has low self-esteem, in part thanks to Bear. Charles is the primary point of view in this book, and the fact that he muddles through life eking out a living as an Italian teacher makes him not particularly likeable. 

The writing is choppy—it doesn’t flow. While the name dropping of great artists of the 20th century is interesting if you’re a fan of art history (which I am), it’s hard to root for characters who limp through life or are filled with self-importance.  

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to review this book, which RELEASES MARCH 20, 2018.
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This book and its protagonist won me over very gradually, as it progressed from 1955 to the present. At first, I found the earnest tone charming, but distancing. As Pinch/Charlie/Charles got older (and more cynical), it became easier to find layers of his personality to connect to. Even the title took me quite a while to get behind - but once I did, I adored it.
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Bear Bavinsky is an acclaimed American artist living in Rome in 1955 with his young Canadian wife Natalie and their little boy Charles, nicknamed Pinch. Bear is a huge man in both body and personality. He is totally focused on his work: "My real life, it's when I'm working. It's entirely there. The rest--everything--is flimflam. And that's tragedy."

Bear is a perfectionist who burns any painting that displeases him. His vision for his art is that it should hang in museums where many people can admire his work, rather than belonging to private collectors. 

Bear's magnum opus, his 'Life-Still' series, depicts women's body parts and was featured in Life magazine until a bare breast was noted (gasp!) and the magazine was forced to call back the issue. Was that why Bear left the NY art scene behind in favor of the company of Roman ex-pats? 

On those rare occasions when Bear really focuses on his family, it's like the sun coming out on a gray day. He can be so charming and charismatic when he wants to be! Natalie, an inspiring artist herself, has lived in Bear's artistic shadow, content for the moment to be his muse. Pinch lives for those moments when Bear seems pleased with his son. 

But soon Bear is gone from their lives for good, gone back to America to marry another woman, to start a new family--did Natalie kick him out for his philandering ways? "Even if a man's important, he doesn't get to live by different rules."

Charlie wants a mission like dad's so he works at developing his skills while his mother returns to her potter's wheel. But when Charlie, now a teen, visits Bear in New York, Bear tells him something that will send his life in another direction.

This is very much a character-driven story--very subtle and ironic. For all that I've just talked about Bear Bavinsky, this is really Charles' story. Can he come out from under the suffocating influence of his father, be a success in his own right, create meaningful, lasting friendships and find love?

Did I learn anything from this novel? Perhaps to be careful who your heroes are. Some have feet of clay. 

Many thanks to NetGalley, the author and publisher for the opportunity to read an arc of this new novel, my first taste of Tom Rachman's work.
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The Italian Teacher is destined to be one of my favorite reads of the year.

Tom Rachman's character Pinch is the son of a philandering, larger-than-life artist, Bear Bavinsky. Bear is charming and unreliable.

Pinch spends his entire life trying to get his dad's attention and approval. He imitates his dad, smoking a pipe early. In a one day lesson Bear teachers Pinch the fundamentals of painting and Pinch dreams of following in his father's footsteps.

Bear abandons Pinch and his mother, once his model, for the next model to pose for him; he leaves a string of women behind him and seventeen neglected children.

Bear routinely destroys any canvas he deems subpar. And he decides to stop selling or showing his art, a plan to drive up the values of his canvases. He becomes a legend, a tantalizing mystery in the art world.

Pinch feels a failure, unable to get what he needs from Bear. He flounders through his life, searching for an achievement that would finally elicit real love and approval from his father. His dissertation is on Caravaggio because his father once praised him; his dad doesn't remember doing so. Pinch ends up teaching Italian and foreign languages in London.

Not only is he unable to settle on a career, he loses his college girlfriend when she agrees to pose nude for Bear, which drives Pinch crazy: he knows his dad too well. He later marries a woman and again is too possessive and loses her. He finally moves in with a coworker, sharing a house.

His college friend Marsden comes in and out of his life, but is always reliable and can be counted on.

Too late, Bear corrects Pinch: he never said Pinch was a bad artist, just that he didn't have the personality and selfishness to BE an artist.

Pinch's life is sad, miserable, and heartbreaking. So, you ask me, why would you ever want to read this book about a loser? The story has an unexpected turn and a truly comedic ending

Of all his children, Bear chooses Pinch to be his confidence man, even leaving his estate and paintings to him. He believes Pinch understands and supports his intention.

Pinch hatches a scheme that is the greatest scam of all time, a joke on the whole world of art, a way to keep his seventeen half-siblings happy, and still keep his promise to his dad.

And then...another reversal gives Pinch a place in the art world he so desperately desired. The novel left me laughing. It is a brilliant reversal.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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'When she was living here with Pinch alone, Natalie heard from nobody. Then Bear moved to Rome and the invitations gushed in.'

1950’s Rome, successful artist Bear Bavinsky is the center of his wife Natalie (Natty) and Son Pinch’s (Charles) lives. It’s a whirlwind when he is with them, and like death when he is absent. Natty longs to be taken seriously as an artist, but ‘lady potters’ aren’t taken seriously, unlike painters such as Bear who was raved about in Life magazine. Everyone wants a piece of him, longs to know his secrets but he burns most of his work. ‘Maybe six canvases a year make the cut.’ Such revelations create mystery, make him far more sought after. Bear wants nothing more than to have his great works of art hang in museums. Natalie lives in the shadow of her American artist husband often wishing her Canadian self erased.

She was barely 20 when they met in Rome, he nearly 40. There for the summer to study art, Natty is seduced by his talent and fame. He becomes her home, with him she can be ‘an artist’, and never return to Canada. She becomes his wife, after he gets out of the tangle of his first family’s clutches. They have Pinch together, and he is just as in awe of his father as Natty. He yearns to follow the blazing trail his father has set, and tucks away every lesson Bear has taught him. When the story begins, we follow Pinch as a little boy but by 1963 he is 11, attending a private international school in Rome because Bear wants his son to grow up ‘American’. Natty is more housewife than artist, living nothing of the bohemian life she had dreamed up for herself. Bear is consumed with creating his masterpieces in his studio, or surrounded by groupies. Pinch feels forgotten, but Bear has the gift for knowing just when trust is waning, and suck people back in, Pinch is no exception. Pinch is a sort of stand in for his father’s disappearing acts, and is more ‘the little man’ than child, helping his mother survive much like a single woman. Pinch tries so hard to lend confidence and hope to his depressed mother, but it is only with Bear’s fleeting attention on her that she blossoms.

When Birdie, Bear’s youngest daughter from his first marriage visits, Pinch is excited to get close to his half-sister. Unbeknownst to him, he is getting a preview of what it means to be discarded by his father. Birdie doesn’t care for his art, she needs his love. Pinch decides witnessing Birdie’s revolt to remain staunchly loyal to his fickle father. Bear is immovable when it comes to tantrums. Great men can’t be expected to worry about such mundane things as day-to-day chores, caring for children, making the wife happy, oh no! They have things to create, they must be remembered in history! There is a line that expresses Bear better than anything else, “Dad is striding away, and Bear Bavinsky does not slow his pace.” 

Soon his father departs for work in New York, leaving Natty and Pinch on their own in Rome. He doesn’t return and Pinch is trying to catch up to his father’s greatness, and earn his love the rest of the novel, and his life.  It isn’t until 1971 that Pinch visits his father in New York , placing his dream of being an artist in his fathers gifted, careless hands.  Crushed by the reality of his skills, he forges a new future for himself, that of an art critic. He decides Toronto, and his forgotten maternal grandmother are the key to his success. There he is befriended by Marsden, who is part of a wealthy family in Ontario, and reckless of his own luck. Pinch falls in love with a girl, and watches everything go awry when he takes her to visit his father in France. He has concocted a great plan, to be biographer of his father, assuring his art and name will live forever, alongside other great men. Life comes at Pinch and his plans hard. He tries to be the sort of man his father would admire, and Bear is forever present in his head.

Years after her time with Bear, Natty is damaged and needy, but ‘gets by’ on her own, after she moves to London. It’s easier to imagine her life going on fine without him, because she and her sadness are like an anchor that can pull him down to places his doesn’t want to root. He wants to be like Bear, though in so many ways he is becoming his mother. The characters in this novel are alive, and deeply flawed either by hero-worship, selfishness, blindness or need. They are also at times very self-aware, but unable to change, and many of us can relate. As for Pinch, I am so happy that Rachman doesn’t make life shimmer and shine for him. I kept fearing he would grow up to be one of the beautiful people, and win everything in life.

He comes into his own with strange deceit, and I loved it. His final opinion of his own art skills mean more in the end than anything his ‘art-god’ father could ever say. This is both a tender and cruel novel. Bear charges like a bull through the lives of every single person he claims to love, and you really can’t help but think he truly can’t be any other way. It’s interesting to ponder on how loaded every moment a parent’s approval is, how easily we can crush or lift our sons and daughters. It breaks your heart how much Pinch wants to mean something to Bear, and how little he accounts for Natty’s constancy. Her words to him, ” Anyway, the force of will in Bear is incredible. I envy him that. You need to be selfish as an artist- that’s why it’s so much harder for a woman.” Just which parent was truly the weaker one? I’ll let you decide.

This novel just has something special that moved me, maybe having children that are both forging a path in art careers I feel a tenderness for characters like Pinch. This is a favorite for me in 2018!

Publication Date: March 20, 2018

Penguin
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