Last Updated on March 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
Rabo Karabekian is 71 years old at the time that he writes his autobiography. He is a semi-retired painter and World War II veteran who lives in a beach house property in the affluent East Hampton neighborhood in New York. He is the narrator and the writer of the book, which is his autobiography. He was married twice: his first wife, Dorothy, left him due to his obsession with art, and his second wife, Edith, died and left him a widower. Rabo is a first-generation Armenian American—his parents fled from Turkey early in the twentieth century during the Armenian Genocide.
Rabo showed a talent for drawing from a young age, and while his cynical father was skeptical of his talent, his mother supported him and helped him find an apprenticeship. He worked in an ad agency as an artist, but he constantly feared that his work lacked "soul." When World War II began, he volunteered and got assigned to a camouflage unit because of his artistic talent. Unfortunately, he suffered a severe injury after an explosion and consequently lost an eye, forcing him to wear an eye patch for the rest of his life.
Dan Gregory is an artist that Rabo apprenticed under. Gregory is famous for his skill at producing art that has photorealistic detail. He detests modern art and the movement for abstract expressionism, and he expressly forbids his assistant from visiting the Museum of Modern Art. While he has considerable artistic talent, Gregory is is also possessed of a pretentious and scathing personality. In fact, the criticism that Gregory delivers to Rabo haunts Rabo's entire life.
Gregory also proves to be vindictive, as after Rabo is dismissed from his apprenticeship, the artist beings slandering him and makes it difficult for Rabo to get employed as an artist. It is also revealed that Gregory considers Benito Mussolini—the Italian fascist dictator—to be the greatest of men. This devoted admiration proves to be his downfall, however, when he is shot and killed while on his way to Italy to visit his hero.
Marilee Kemp is Gregory's assistant whom Rabo falls in love with. She's one of the major reasons that, after being disenfranchised by Gregory's antagonistic nature, Rabo chooses to continue with his apprenticeship. On one occasion, Marilee and Rabo visit the Museum of Modern Art, and it is there that they both become enamored with the works of early abstract artists. When Gregory discovers them, he seems less upset that they appear to be a couple (as they are holding hands) than by the fact that they were appreciating modern art, and he fires both of them on the spot.
While Rabo and Marilee have a genuine affection for each other, she eventually encourages him to make his own way in the world, and they part ways when he leaves Gregory's tutelage. Marilee then becomes a rich Countess and the widow of the wealthy Italian Count Portomaggiore, a British spy. Marilee and Rabo have a bittersweet reunion after the war, and she is the one who eventually tells him that Dan Gregory is dead. They do not rekindle their romance, but they do remain friends—and Marilee supports him in his art career—until Marilee dies.
Dorothy, Rabo's first wife, was the nurse at the hospital where he recuperated from his wartime injury. Despite the fact that they are separated, Rabo does not blame her, as he was a terrible husband (he describes his "post-war movie" as an excess of alcohol and nights away from home) and a worse father to their two sons.
Terry and Henri Steel
Rabo's sons, Terry and Henri, are estranged from their father, and after their parents' separation, the two boys adopt the surname of their new stepfather. In his old age, Rabo bequeaths them all of his possessions in his will on the condition that they once again adopt his surname—in order to fulfill his mother's wish that the Karabekian family name be preserved.
Edith Taft Fairbanks
Edith Taft Fairbanks is Rabo's second wife, and she was previously the wife of the man who Rabo bought his East Hampton property from—the property where he sets up his artist's studio. Edith loves nature and animals and even has a pet raccoon, and she and Rabo quickly become fond of each other after their first meeting. After Edith's husband dies, they grow even closer until they eventually become lovers and get married. They live a comfortable, deliriously happy life together for twenty years. After Edith dies, Rabo finds himself bereft.
Circe Berman is a famous writer who uses the nom de plume "Polly Madison." Rabo meets Berman one day when he is walking on the beach. She almost immediately begins to challenge him on his assumptions and his beliefs. She is first and foremost a pragmatist and writes equally pragmatic young adult novels about topics that are important to modern teenagers. Rabo eventually invites Berman to stay with him, and she proves to have a profound impact on his life.
It is Berman who demands that Rabo write an autobiography—the text of Bluebeard itself. She also imposes herself on renovations to his property, redesigning his entrance foyer to her own tastes. There is also a central tension between Berman and Rabo that runs through the story that highlights Rabo's predilection for the past and Berman's dismissal of "ancient" knowledge as trivial and useless. Neither concedes to the other's point of view, but they still remain friends, sustaining a constant discourse characterized by civil disagreement.
Rabo comes to trust Circe so much that he finally lets her see the painting that he keeps secreted in the potato barn: an enormous work titled Now It's the Women's Turn. After this revelation, he admits to Berman that she is the one who coaxed him back into the land of the living after his prolonged grief following the death of Edith.
Terry is one of Rabo's artist friends, and he is incredibly supportive of his friend's work. Tragically, Terry suffers from great personal torment. Eventually this proves to be too overwhelming, and he commits suicide.
Paul is a schizophrenic writer and another good friend of Rabo who comes to live with Rabo after the death of Edith.
Allison and Celeste White
Allison is Rabo's long-suffering cook, and, for an extended period of time, his only living companion. Allison lives in Rabo's house along with her daughter, Celeste—who owns all of Circe Berman's books and is a constant source of exasperation for Karabekian.
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