This fictionalized exploration of Maria Chabot’s friendship with Georgia O’Keeffe provides a lush portrait of the remarkable Chabot, O’Keeffe and her legacy, and the landscape that shaped both their lives.
Maria Chabot met Georgia O’Keeffe in 1940, and they exchanged almost 700 letters until O’Keeffe’s death in 1986. Albert’s novel sifts the breadth and complexity of this friendship, with greater attention to the 1940s when Chabot was O’Keeffe’s “hired hand” at Ghost Ranch and then restored the Abiquiú house that would become the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio.
The chapters are mostly from Maria’s point of view, with nonfiction inserts describing landmarks like the Piedra Lumbre Valley, the history of Abiquiú, and the Los Luceros property that Chabot ran for Mary Cabot Wheelwright. Pedernal, the New Mexican mesa that O’Keeffe painted many times, looms throughout the book as motif and symbol, a personification of Changing Woman of Navajo belief.
Without sentiment but with deep tenderness, Albert portrays a friendship between two headstrong women that strains, stretches, and yet endures. Chabot is the more appealing character: energetic, loyal, curious, and capable. Her devotion to the arrogant and uncompromisingly selfish O’Keeffe forms the book’s chief tension until Chabot can “finally outgrow the need to take care of her . . . [which] opened me to the rest of my life.” The prose is finely lyrical, with the landscape earning the most luscious description, Pedernal “draped in its blue morning mists, anchoring the distant horizon,” the vistas of “folded and pleated and layered rock, of vast skies and unbroken silences.”
While there is much summary, some repetition, and sections that recap past action, rather than showing it, they’re all of interest and told in the same skillful language as the rest of narrative. Completely absorbing, the book offers a moving meditation on art, ambition, passion, and friendship, as well as a breathtaking tribute to an unconquerable land.
Highly recommended for fans of Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia and Elizabeth Berg’s The Dream Lover.