As someone who cherishes the idea of eventually writing fiction professionally one day, it is 100% infuriating to read books like this, books so elegant, so intelligent, so perfect and modern that it makes any effort I could possibly make feel superfluous. Having a healthy ego, I will get over my sheer envy in days, but the impact otherwise of The Portrait Of A Mirror will last for far, far longer.
TPoaM revolves around four people: Diana Whalen who is married to Wes Range who went to school with Vivien Floris who is engaged to Dale McBride who works with Diana. Gorgeous, intelligent and privileged, if not outright wealthy, the paths of all four cross and re-cross as they fall in and out of love in variations on the myth of Narcissus, with the narrative and themes looping and unfolding in exquisite plays on recursion and pop culture and love. Told in vivid, droll prose reminiscent of (yeah, I’m gonna say it) Jane Austen, interspersed with text message exchanges, corporate memos and other modern communiques, this comedy of manners absolutely slaughters its contemporaries as it dives into the psyches of all four of its main characters, examining their flaws and culpability with an unerring eye that had me shifting uncomfortably in my own seat as I felt seen and judged and, ultimately, forgiven.
And here’s the thing, there are going to be plenty of people who read this book and don’t get it or don’t like it, because it’s a novel about complicated white people who don’t have to worry about much more than their own feelings, but the way A Natasha Joukovsky writes about these people not only plunges us deep into their beings but also calls to the complicated feelings we all have about love and self-love and long-term love and long-lost love. She does this while eschewing cliche in favor of an unvarnished truth, which could make for dire reading, yet leavens it all with a clear-eyed empathy for and kindness to both her characters and readers alike.
But it’s not all just feelings: TPoaM is a novel as astonishingly clever and devastatingly charming as its protagonists, leaping nimbly from deep dives into art history and computer science and classic literature to tell silly jokes at its own expense and make sly references to its plentiful influences and antecedents. It is a deeply intelligent book that is fully connected to life in the 21st century, tho it is cannily set in 2015, a time when America was lulled into believing that grownups ran our politics and that we kept getting better as a people, so could absorb ourselves wholly in our selves. In pursuit of an escape into life pre-45, please do browse the book’s Insta page @IMetOvidsHeirs and listen to the excellent Spotify playlist to immerse yourself even more fully in the world of this wonderful debut.
Anyway, I’m still wildly jealous of her for writing this magnificent novel but also want to be her friend? We all have books that elicit those feelings, I imagine.
The Portrait Of A Mirror by A Natasha Joukovsky was published June 1 2021 by The Overlook Press and is available from all good booksellers, including