Rodin's Debutante

by Ward Just

A finely observed coming-of-age novel, set in Chicago, with a boarding school for boys and a never-solved sexual crime at its center, from the National Book Award finalist Ward Just.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547752655
  • ISBN-10: 0547752652
  • Pages: 272
  • Publication Date: 04/17/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    “An achievement . . . [that] fuses the romanticism of the early Kerouac and his mentor, Thomas Wolfe, with the wry humor of Richard Yates.”—New York Times Book Review

    Tommy Ogden, an outsized character holding court in his mansion outside robber-baron-era Chicago, declines to give his wife the money to commission a bust of herself from the French master Auguste Rodin, and instead announces his intention to endow a boys’ school. His decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart of Ward Just’s emotionally potent novel.

    Lee’s life in the small town of New Jesper, Illinois, is irrevocably changed by the rape of one of his high school classmates. His father, a local judge and a member of “the Committee” of civic leaders that runs the town, votes to suppress the crime in the name of protecting their community. His mother responds by forcing a move to Chicago’s North Shore, where Lee enrolls in the private Ogden Hall School for Boys. Both the crime and the school come to profoundly shape Lee’s knowledge of how the world works. Years later, Lee meets his victimized classmate. Their charged encounter is a confirmation of his understanding that how and what we remember lies at the heart of life.

    “Sharply observant, pragmatic, mordantly funny, and stubbornly romantic, Ward Just is a spellbinding storyteller . . . Rodin’s Debutante is a powerful tale of daunting revelations and determined self-expression.”—Donna Seaman, WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio

    “An understated and delicate offering by a master.”—Kirkus Reviews

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    This is a true story, or true as far as it goes. Ogden Hall School for Boys never would have existed were it not for the journey that two Chicago girls made to Paris with their mother. The eldest girl had her head sculpted in marble by the great Rodin in his atelier at the Dépôt des Marbres, a bust from his own hand and chisel. The Chicago girl was eighteen and lovely, the bust a present on her birthday. Rodin was demanding, meticulous in his craft. His eyes glittered as he worked, his unruly head moving to some mysterious rhythm. The girl was a little bit afraid of Rodin, his glare almost predatory, his eyes black as lumps of coal. And when she mentioned this to her mother, the woman only smiled and said that such men were forces of nature but that did not mean they could not be tamed. Only one question: Was the taming worth the trouble? This Rodin, probably yes; but it would take time to find out. The finding-out would be the amusing part and naturally there was ambiguity as in any sentimental endeavor. Taming had its unfortunate side.

    In any case, the girl’s mother said, you are much too young for such an adventure. Wait two years.

    The sitting took only a few days—Rodin wanted an additional day but that was out of the question owing to the travel schedule—and then the girls went on to Salzburg. Their mother was devoted to German opera. Then east to Vienna, south to Florence, and west to Nice, and when, one month later, they returned to Paris the bust was done and in due course sent by ship and installed in the hallway alcove of the Astor Street house, a beautiful work of art, most soulful, luminous in the yellow light from the new electric lamps, and a trenchant counterpoint to the soft Cézanne landscape on the wall opposite. All the newspapers took notice. The Art Institute took particular notice, though the curator privately thought that the bust showed signs of haste. Rodin’s debutante was the talk of Chicago. The cost was trifling, a bagatelle. Mother paid francs, cash, on the spot. Two husky workmen were required to transport the wooden case to the brougham waiting at curbside.

    That was marie’s point, made again and again to her husband Tommy, who was unimpressed, sawing away at his beefsteak, his head low to the plate. Who knew if he was even listening. Tommy Ogden, irascible at all times, disliked discussion of money at meals. The price, Marie went on, was barely more than a wretched automobile, one of Ford’s small ones, a mere piece of machinery as opposed to a work of art that would endure forever and ever. The argument began at cocktails, continued through dinner, and did not end—well, in a sense it never ended. There were witnesses to it, the van Hornes and their daughter Trish and the Billingtons and Tommy’s lawyer Bert Marks and the Italian servants, Francesca and Alana. Marie wanted her own head in marble and Tommy was too damned cheap to pay for it. Cheap, self-centered, and an egoist, concerned with himself alone. Tommy who thought only of shooting, shooting in Georgia, shooting in Arkansas, shooting in Scotland and Austria and the eastern shore of Maryland and Montana and East Africa and beyond. His set of matched Purdeys cost much more than Rodin’s magnificent marble of the Chicago girl and that was consistent with his scale of values. Firearms figured mightily in Tommy Ogden’s scheme of things. So, Marie said, with Tommy or without him she intended to leave at once for the south of France, where she had engaged a pretty villa near Antibes. The route to Antibes led through Paris, where her destination was the atelier at Dépôt des Marbres.

    Maître Rodin was said to be most engaging, a powerful presence, something of a roughneck, so French.

    I have seen a photograph of the bust, Marie said. That girl’s head is even larger than yours, Tommy.

    Go to Paris and be damned, Tommy said at last. Under his breath he added, If you can get there. As was often the case, Tommy had confidential information.

    I will, Marie said. I propose to leave tomorrow.

    Good luck, Tommy said. Don’t expect to find me here when you get back.

    Steady on, Tommy, Bill van Horne said, but in the thickness of the atmosphere at table no one heard him.

    And where are you going? Marie demanded.

    Idaho, Tommy said. Pheasant.

    Marie made a noise somewhere between a cluck and a growl and signaled Francesca to pass the wine. Tommy was drinking whiskey and now took a long swallow, draining his glass and replenishing it from the decanter on the table.

    I’ve got news for you, Marie.

    What’s that, Tommy? What’s your news?

    I’m finished with this house.

    What house?

    This house, Tommy said. I’m getting rid of it.

    You wouldn’t dare, Marie said. Your father built this house.

    Watch me, Tommy said.

    Drew up the plans himself, Marie said. The bedrooms, the library, the re-cep-shun room. But it doesn’t matter. No one wants this house. No one will buy it. It’s a white elephant.

    Think so?

    Absolutely, she said.

    I’m not selling it, Marie. Get that through your head. I’m giving it away. I’m donating it, you see. That’s my decision and it’s final. You better clear out your things before I get back from Idaho.

    Tommy, Bill van Horne said, for God’s sake—

    You’re crazy, Marie said. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

    Bert has all the details, Tommy said. Isn’t that right, Bert?

    Of course, Tommy. Bert Marks had no idea what his client was talking about.

    Your mother died in this house, Marie said.

    Leave my mother out of it. My mother is none of your damned business.

    Died in the bedroom just upstairs—

    Damn sight more comfortable than any hospital, Tommy said.

    When did you get this crazy idea?

    I don’t like that word, Marie.

    Well, it’s crazy.

    Don’t say that again.

    Did you get your idea yesterday? This morning? Did it come at dusk like a bird on the wing? I’ll bet it did.

    Tommy pushed his chair from the table and crossed his legs with a show of nonchalance. His expression was vacant, as if he were alone at table, deep in thought. When he moved his body the chair creaked. It was much too small for him, a rosewood chair that looked as if it could be smashed into matchsticks by his huge fingers. His face was flushed but the company did not notice owing to the darkness of the room. Tommy’s face was in shadow. They waited for him to speak and dreaded whatever it was he might say. Tommy Ogden was unpredictable to say the least of it and an atmosphere of violence followed him wherever he went. When he was shooting he was most excited at the kill itself. The beauty of the day or the natural surroundings had no meaning for him. His shooting partners were ignored. Bloodlust had meaning and he was a natural marksman. Now he took another swallow of whiskey and looked directly across the table at Marie. He said, I’ve had the idea for a while. But I decided definitely only ten minutes ago when you started mouthing off about French sculptors and that damned Chicago girl. I’m sick and tired of it. I’m sick and tired of you, so you’d better stop mouthing off.

    But that was not Marie’s way. She and Tommy had been married just seven years and argument was their natural milieu. It was how they got on day to day, arguments over small things, large things, often nothing at all. They had both learned to make their way in the world, Tommy because he was rich and Marie because she wasn’t. Marie once explained to Beth van Horne that she looked on her husband as the tyrant of the city-state next door; give him an inch and he’d take a mile and before
  • Reviews

    "Don't be misled by the title; this engaging coming-of-age tale has little to do with either Auguste Rodin or a debutante. Instead it begins early in the 20th century with Tommy Ogden, a rich, enigmatic Chicagoan who drunkenly decides one day to endow a boys' prep school. Flash forward a few decades to Lee Goodell, who attends Ogden Hall School for Boys and privately wants to become a sculptor. We follow his life, witnessing the two acts of violence that change him. Rodin's Debutante is a surprising story, never going where you expect it to, and Just's spare prose packs a solid emotional punch. A-" –Entertainment Weekly


    "To his immense credit, Just doesn’t turn this into a whodunit—in fact, we never learn who committed the crimes—but is instead focused on the intricate, almost Jamesian unfolding of the personal and private lives of his sharply delineated characters. An understated and delicate offering by a master."--Kirkus Reviews


    "Just extends his grand inquiry into family, honor, and injustice in his beguiling and unnerving seventeenth novel. Like An Unfinished Season (2004), this bildungsroman is set on Just's home ground, northern Illinois, where Tommy Ogden, a man of enormous inherited wealth, flagrant taciturnity, and an excessive avidity for shooting animals, turns his massive prairie mansion into an ill-conceived boys' school at the onset of WWI. Lee Goodell, the son of a judge, grows up in a nearby small town, a bucolic place until the Great Depression delivers tramps and a horrific sex crime. Lee, dreamy, kind, and willful, attends Ogden's school, then headed by a Melville fanatic, where he plays football and swoons over a sculpted bust by Rodin. Determined to become a sculptor, Lee rents a basement studio on Chicago's South Side, where a knife attack jeopardizes his artistic vocation and involves him in the lives of his poor, struggling neighbors and the mission of a compassionate African American doctor. Stealthily meshing the gothic with the modern, the feral with the civilized, in this mordantly funny yet profoundly mysterious novel, Just asks what divides and what unites us. What should be kept secret? Which teaches us more, failure or success? And of what value is beauty? HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Award-winning Just attracts more readers with each uniquely compelling novel."--Booklist, STARRED review

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