ONE WOMAN SHOW CHRISTINE COULSON INTRODUCTION One Woman Show
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is a novel written almost entirely in museum wall labels chronicling the twentieth-century life of Kitty Whitaker. Using this unique structure, the book treats people as exquisite works of art, examining their individual style, history, provenance, and condition, just as we would consider an object in a museum. As Kitty moves from collection to collection through multiple marriages, we see how she is prized, evaluated, and critiqued. We also witness her quiet rebellion against this constraint and slowly understand the limitations of the story we are being told. TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What was your initial reaction to the format of One Woman Show
? How does the challenge of assembling the full story inform your understanding of it? What role does the reader play in the novel? Did you have a favorite label?
2. What details stood out to you about Kitty’s childhood? How did the way Kitty’s parents treated her inform her upbringing?
3. In the piece titled SOPHOMORE, MISS PORTER'S SCHOOL, AGED 15, 1922, Kitty examines her changing body in a "private self-assessment." Why do you think the author chose to include this detail? What does the reader's survey of Kitty's self-assessment say about the role of the female body in art?
4. In BRIDE, AGED 19, 1926, we see Kitty move collections for the first time. Discuss the role of "collections" throughout the novel and how the reader may equate them to the different stages of Kitty's life.
5. In MOTHER, AGED 21,1928, we learn that Kitty loses a child. This information is followed by an Emily Post quote on overcoming grief. Why do you think the author chose to include this quote? What does it say about how women were allowed to process their emotions at this time?
6. Compare and contrast Kitty's bridesmaids at the time of her wedding and when we meet them again nearly forty years later.
7. In ELLEN BARTON, a young Metropolitan Museum assistant remarks that, "Mrs. Deen enjoys the unfettered path of the rich but without any real ambition; she was raised as a prize—a pretty thing entitled to pretty things." How does Kitty's role in the novel evolve as the world becomes more progressive? Is there a place for her in a modern world?
8. How does the interspersed dialogue inform the wall labels? Did you learn anything from the dialogue that changed the way you viewed Kitty's story?
9. At the end of the novel, we learn that Picasso's painting of Kitty is in fact STILL LIFE WITH VASE, 1950. What does this say about Kitty's place in history?
10. In the final exhibition label, we hear from Kitty herself as she is packed away in a storage facility. How do you interpret this ending? ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Put together a list of books that use a unique structure to tell a story. Are there any commonalities? How do they involve the reader?
2. Choose a work of art and develop a backstory for its subject. What does their early life look like? If there are other figures featured in the piece, how do they relate to the subject? Where might their life lead them?
3. Make a list of the art terminology you looked up and share the terms with the group. Discuss their definitions and offer any examples you've seen on your own museum visits. A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTINE COULSON One Woman Show forces us to question whether the voice behind Kitty's exhibition wall labels is that of a reliable narrator. What is it about this format that intrigued you?
One of my jobs at the Metropolitan Museum was to write wall labels. The label form is very specific: you only get seventy-five words to describe any work of art, so visitors are always getting only part of the story. I wanted to play with that idea, a Cubist form of storytelling where a part needs to stand in for the whole. Labels are also notoriously boring, so I wondered, what if a label was funny? What if one was emotional or sexy? How far could I push the form and its detached institutional voice? Once that voice was established and stretched, I wanted to disrupt it with the pages of dialogue, like voices in the galleries contradicting the labels and sowing some doubts. I love hearing from readers that they read the book twice—first for plot and then again to excavate the text for the humor and connections embedded within it. That’s the beauty of a short book. In your previous book, Metropolitan Stories, you wrote about many different subjects, including paintings, furniture, architecture, and museum staff. What was it like focusing on one subject and one medium in this novel?
The singular subject was unexpected. In my very first experiment with the novel’s label structure, I randomly described a patrician woman standing in the Met’s galleries. I called her Kitty and had no particular investment in her as a character. She was a Park Avenue matron. And then she took over the book! She had a story to tell, so I followed it—and her. Describing Kitty in terms of porcelain just made sense: it is a hard but fragile material, of limited utility, made of fire, that’s easily moved around and grouped with other objects. It’s also hard to hide its damage. Kitty is a bit of a collector. She collects unique words, stolen trinkets, and—whether she means to or not—husbands. What does this say about her?
I liked the idea of the collected being the collector sometimes. It was a way of demonstrating that Kitty knows what’s happening to her; she understands the power of possession. She is always seeking control in a life defined by constraint. From a very early age, Kitty both understands and exploits the social construct into which she is born. She is also innately transgressive, though she experiences no real consequences (one of the powers of privilege). I hope readers develop empathy for Kitty. She’s not always likable, but she has facets and experiences that are deeply moving, especially when you consider the losses she collects throughout her life. Historical events often parallel the events that transpire in the novel, like the stock market crash of 1929 and its effect on Whippy Vanderloo. Why did you decide to set One Woman Show in the twentieth century?
I knew and admired a lot of women like Kitty from my time at the Met. They had tremendous strength but lived in a time and in a society that had very specific expectations for them. That said, the book is not a historical novel; it simply bumps up against history from time to time. For example, during World War II many of the works of art at the Met went into storage, so I wanted Kitty to have that experience. The labels were never written in chronological order (the last label in the book was probably the third one that I wrote). The story spread like an ink blot as moments and characters appeared. Kitty consistently surprised me. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger says, "A woman must continually watch herself. . . . From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman." Can you talk a little bit about the role of woman as object in art? Would you say Kitty is both the surveyor and the surveyed?
Kitty certainly tracks with Berger’s analysis when she is young; she knows she is being watched and assessed. However, the idea of a woman as an object is almost too easy. Indeed, Kitty is constantly evaluated, and the book itself mimics the diminishing interest in her as she ages. There are many labels about Kitty when she is young and full of potential, but the book funnels as she gets older when society looks elsewhere. There is equal scrutiny between
the women in the garniture. It is not just men objectifying women, but women surveying one another. Kitty can be quite cruel in this respect; she is very attached to “the pristine condition of her gilding” and is deeply rattled when Peter explains to her the advantages of being beautiful. Self-surveying is where Kitty may fall a little short. You've spent countless hours in museums; do you have any advice for considering art more deeply?
Don’t read the labels! I think museums are for looking. The real joy of art comes from feeling something in response to an object, but that is a muscle you have to develop and flex. I often tell people to go into the Met and just wander around until something stops you in your tracks—it doesn’t matter what it is. Then spend fifteen minutes looking at it (that’s a long time to look at one thing; you’ll be amazed at what you start to see). And then, most importantly, leave! Walk out of the museum and that object is still yours. Whether or not you return to the museum, that connection will stay with you.