The overriding theme of Picturing Will is surely the destruction of family life in the modern world. Beattie labors not only to present each member of a family but also to set the scene authentically with photographic detail. Her choppy sentences and rapid sequence of sketchily presented scenes reflect the fragmentation of a family. The scenes are mere flashes, like those from Jody’s camera. A scene depicting grotesque masqueraders at a Halloween party that Jody is snapping, juxtaposed with that of a deer struck and killed by Mary Vickers’s car on her way home, epitomizes the unpredictability of the moment, which Jody is quickly on the scene to record with her camera. As scenes keep changing rapidly, the reader is left, like Will, to decipher their significance. Will tries to fathom Haveabud’s rape of a child and, later, his own father’s arrest. Does his childhood amount to such experiences or to a photograph of himself and his mother taken for Vogue and persisting as a prominent display in his mother’s home?
By the presentation of unconnected scenes, the author suggests that modern urban life is like a series of random pictures. Her splashes of realistic detail vivify the often excruciating relationships of Mel and Jody, of Haveabud and Spencer, of Wayne and Kate. The nature of Jody’s art inclines her to see life as snippets, even her son as something to “picture.” With good intentions, she becomes more and more a mere provider for her son, more like the hardworking but distant father of an earlier time. Is it possible, the reader wonders, for such a woman to succeed as a mother under such circumstances?
In its third section, the novel affirms the possibility of stable family life by telescoping twenty years, in the process establishing a sense of continuity to counter the staccato effect of the prior scenes, although the brevity of the section arguably diminishes its effectiveness. Also contributing to the sense of stability, however, are the characters of Corky and, in particular, Mel. They demonstrate the possibility of integrity and cohesion even amid the disintegrating forces at work in a megalopolis corrupted by too many versions of Wayne and Haveabud and increasingly served by people who, like Jody, fall short of the challenge of combining responsible parenthood with professional success.