The Passion Dream Book

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Using a somewhat fragmented format similar to that in her earlier novel HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT (1991), Whitney Otto’s new novel travels through space and time to explore issues besetting the lives of artists, particularly women artists. Beginning in Renaissance Italy where Giulietta, trained by her father in art because it is the only thing he knows, becomes a loving spy on Michelangelo and struggles with a culture which does not recognize women artists, the text quickly switches to the twentieth century to follow the life of one of Giulietta’s descendants, Romy March, and her life-long love, Augustine Marks.

The one work of Giulietta which comes down to Romy is a box which depicts a young woman and man looking at each other as if they were reflections in a mirror, which symbolizes the relationship between Romy, an Italian American and Augustine, an African American. Both are photographers who are marginalized, though Romy more so as a woman. They meet in California in 1918, live together in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, separate when Romy migrates to Europe as an expatriate artist, and eventually come together again in San Francisco in 1956.

A love story, this novel is also an exploration of the artist as woman, as outsider, as traveller and explorer; as such the choice of photography was an inspired one, for Romy and Augustine are breaking new ground as new types of artists in a new medium. This novel is beautifully written and encyclopedic in its breadth of information, perhaps too much so, for at times the historical aspect overwhelms the sense of character, and Romy and Augustine seem little more than symbols.