So much alike were Rachel and Jake that as a child she had been given the nickname “Rake” to indicate their identity. Author Jessica Auerbach uses painting on glass as a metaphor for this bond because, “There’s no repainting. Only a single touch will do, for the first-laid stroke is the one that counts; the one that’s seen from the other side.” As she grows older, Rachel struggles to assert her independence from her childhood friend, but all her actions serve to indicate that she has been marked for life by this early Edenic relationship.
Rachel and Jake come of age during the Vietnam War, and his enforced exile in Canada as a war resister is the severest test of their commitment to each other. Feeling bereft and abandoned, Rachel rushes into an ill-considered marriage with Ben, who attracts her because he resembles Jake. When the marriage dissolves and Rachel finds herself burdened with an unwanted pregnancy, she instinctively turns to Jake for help. In the face of Rachel’s initial refusal to come to Canada and her subsequent marriage, Jake has made his own attempt at separation. Growing up for these two finally means acceptance of exile in another country but no loss of Eden: They are able to reconstruct their love in a Toronto island cottage, which resembles nothing so much as their childhood playhouse.
By making Rachel a first-person narrator, Jessica Auerbach manages to give the preoccupations of young adults during the 1960’s a fresh sense of immediacy. Although at times she perhaps tries too hard to make her novel a chronicle of that period (the inclusion of a reference to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention seems strained, as do the number of metamorphoses Ben suffers), PAINTING ON GLASS is a compelling account of how Vietnam victimized not only those who went to Southeast Asia, but also those who fought private wars of conscience.