Like a Rolling Stone: Playing Botticelli by Liza Nelson

By Lise Funderburg


In the world of Liza Nelson’s spry first novel, “Playing Botticelli,” mother-daughter relationships don’t stand a chance against the overpowering egocentricity of human nature. Nor does the future look good for fathers and daughters, or for lovers, or friends. Acquaintanceships, at least, are appropriately superficial.

At the heart of all this disconnection is Godiva Blue, a hightop-wearing, 6-foot redhead, nee Judy Blitch, who leads a self-indulgently iconoclastic life in the mid-1980s, even as she nears middle age. Godiva is an artist and part-time school custodian, settled for the last 10 years into a tiny northwest Florida town with her now 15-year-old daughter Dylan — the outcome of a pleasant but inconsequential one-night stand during a political protest trip to Washington, D.C. When she and Dylan first arrived in the town of Esmeralda, a place that struck her as “the edge of nowhere,” Blue decided this was where they’d permanently park Miranda, their VW bus. She told her daughter her goal: “Total integration, Noodle,” she explained to the little girl. “Total integration.”

Of course, that aspiration is impossible to realize, since Blue has no interest in becoming “a plastic purse of a woman,” like the town’s more upstanding citizens, the ones her adolescent daughter is desperate to be like. Blue writes contrary letters to the town paper, on topics ranging from garbage to Iran-contra, and she proudly wears her white liberal single-parent-by-choice label.

“Godiva has no interest in doing what normal people do,” Dylan observes, even as she herself is infatuated with the plain predictability of the community they inhabit. When Dylan starts spending time at the Baptist church, going to the minister’s home for dinner and participating in overnight Baptist youth “Lock-ins,” Godiva prides herself in showing restraint, smug with the certain knowledge that “this flirtation” won’t last. “It will pass,” she assures herself. “I know my Dylan.”

But of course she miscalculates, blinded by an overblown sense of her own creative omnipotence.

Describing the art she makes — small boxes of wood, clay and papier-mâché — she says, “My medium has become life enclosures. Not shrines. Not reliquaries . . . My boxes are worlds unto themselves, filled with the shapes and colors and textures of my visions.” Describing her life as a parent is similarly metaphysical: “Being Dylan’s mother is as intrinsic to my wholeness as a woman and an artist as being my daughter is intrinsic to her wholeness,” she muses. “Dylan, as much as myself, is the beneficiary of my quest for perfected vision.”

Who could bear the pressure of being so entwined in someone else’s vision? Who could bear all that artspeak? Not Dylan, who retreats into the privacy of adolescence until she happens upon a way out. The exit strategy shows up in the form of information about her father, a slip of paper her mother has hidden on a shelf full of I Ching paraphernalia. Furious that the clue to his whereabouts has been withheld and desperate to make her own choices in life, Dylan runs away, zigzagging across the country by bus in search of her father, whose political activities seem to have rendered him a fugitive from the FBI.

Mother and daughter couldn’t be farther away from each other at this point — either conceptually or physically — but Nelson keeps them from complete estrangement by assigning them strikingly similar personality traits. One, in particular, is the ability to pick up and discard people with seemingly little afterthought. Godiva takes on a lover, then drops him the moment she finds Dylan is gone. Dylan has a tremendously risky first sexual experience with someone she meets on a bus, “an older guy, at least nineteen,” who has smelly feet and is probably a pathological liar. Afterward, when she has a moment of clarity about what she’s done, she leaves him behind with little remorse. Neither Godiva nor Dylan is able to muster any enduring interest in or empathy for the traumas of her closest female friends, who happen to be mother and daughter. Godiva makes her deepest emotional connection with a little boy, a stranger she happens upon just after he’s sustained terrible injuries in a bicycle accident. She takes to visiting him regularly in his hospital room, reading “Treasure Island” to him and his mother (and noting, self-righteously, that her visits are probably the only times his television is turned oft). Dylan, who meets characters on every leg of her adventure, has a toddler foisted upon her; she takes care of the child until the search for her father reaches a critical turning point, when she allows the little girl to be taken away, only casually noting that she’s likely to lead an unhappy life in foster care.

Precisely because Nelson couches these alienations in a swiftly moving plot, full of humor and told in the compellingly distracting voices of its main characters, they are, on examination, all the more chillingly insidious. And in that sense, the book’s title becomes rife with irony. Botticelli, after all, is the game in which players must guess, through pointed questions and answers, the identity of someone they’ve only been given the initials of. As Godiva describes it, the thrill is in “circling in slowly, on the identity.” Here, no one seems capable of ever winning the game.