The central figure in THE ART LOVER is Caroline Chrysler, a novelist whose first book was a critical success but who has not written a second novel. She has returned to New York to sort out the estate of her recently dead father, Max. Much of THE ART LOVER is concerned with her memories of Max and of her mother, Veronica, who struggled with depression for years before killing herself when Caroline and her two brothers were still young.
A further cause of grief for Caroline is her relationship with Steven, a painter who has been her friend since childhood. Soon after running into Steven on the street, she learns that he suffers from AIDS, and when he is hospitalized she spends countless hours with him, remembering the past, trying to create hope for the future, watching him deteriorate and finally die.
Caroline tries to deal with her pain by working on a new novel, sections of which are included in THE ART LOVER. The women in this novel-within-the-novel must also try to deal with loss, in this case the desertion of Henry, their husband and father, who leaves his family for a younger woman. The mother, Maggie, retreats into passivity; the older daughter, Candace, follows the father to the city and expresses her resentment of him, while her younger sister, Alison, tries to keep the family going. The novel ends with Henry’s decision to return to the family, a move which is not greeted with great joy by the women, who do not know if they can forgive him.
The other important element in this multilayered novel is the insertion by Carole Maso of her own experience of grief for her good friend, Gary Falk, like Steven an artist who died of AIDS. In a long section near the end of the novel Maso describes what happened to Falk and her reaction to his suffering and death.
All these elements are skillfully combined with other materials, including star charts suggesting the inevitability of fate; frequent references to the CHALLENGER disaster; dialogues between characters in the novel and a Jesus who cannot understand why he must die; and reproductions of art works depicting death, suffering, and redemption. The careful and intricate structure and the impeccable prose employed by Maso combine to create a powerful fiction whose resolution is hard-won but convincing.