I write this review out of deep jealousy. For years I’ve known Amy Alley as a South Carolina artist. I also know her as a single mother and a successful arts teacher. Now she has published a novel. How does she keep all the balls in the air? What magic, what secret, does she possess?
The answer is in her book.
Alley writes with the insight and wisdom of a woman who has lived the struggles of single mother-artist. The Absence of Anyone Else tells the story of Grace Pruitt, a talented painter and single working mother who, despite self-doubt, drinks endless pots of hazelnut coffee to stay awake and pursue her passion for art.
As Grace muses one late night in her studio:
Sometimes I wonder why I do it to myself, but I accepted long ago that I am not like most people. Most people do not feel an overwhelming urge to create every minute of the day. They spend their days working and their evenings with family, making dinner, relaxing in front of the television, then going to sleep, waking up, and doing it all over again. They don’t view people in shades of color and they don’t notice things like shadow and form in the landscape while driving down the highway. Why am I different? Why do I hold onto the idea that I have to paint?
Grace is a passionate artist. But she is also a devoted mother. Her toddler son, Samson, comes alive in the book in ways no doubt familiar to many mothers. At one point, Samson puts his head on his mother’s lap and Grace says, “Are you giving me love?” She then realizes he is only wiping his nose on her jeans.
Balancing the twin passions of art and motherhood is Grace’s highest priority, but this isn’t always easy. I am reminded of the documentary Who Does She Think She Is? The film points out that while 80% of students in art school are women, only 20% of professional artists are female. What hard choices do successful women artists face? What do they sacrifice? These questions are echoed in Jack Kerouac’s epigraph to Alley’s novel: “Offer them what they secretly want and they become panic-stricken.”
For Grace, panic arises with the opportunity to add a third element to her life: romantic love. Her childhood friend Daniel declares his love for her just as an internationally renowned art dealer offers a three-year gallery contract in a large city.
Unlike women of previous generations who might have told themselves they could “have it all,” Grace has the realistic grit of a single working mother. She knows that there are only so many hours in a day and only so much sleep she can skip. She must reflect on what she truly desires.
Grace is surrounded by women who advise her in different ways. Her mother merely wants her to get married and show up for church. Her sister, exhausted by the demands of her own toddler twins and an unhelpful husband, is jealous of Grace’s chance for a meaningful career. Her cousin, chain-smoking and work-driven, is wary of Grace’s temptation to let Daniel take precedence over her art. It is her grandmother, however, who reveals a secret past and unearths knowledge that will help Grace reach her decision.
Throughout the novel, readers are treated to a refreshing glimpse of small-town South Carolina. The pages are filled with characters as diverse as those in any big city: they struggle with a poor economy, yet are fully committed members of families and the community.
By the end of the book, Grace has navigated the turbulent waters of motherhood, art and love, and my jealousy for her creator, Amy Alley, has transformed into admiration. Neither Alley nor Grace flinch from the tough choices — and intense passion — of women who feel the “overwhelming urge to create.”
“I’ve come into my own wisdom,” Grace says. And isn’t this the answer we all seek? We learn to follow our internal compass, and the world rises to meet us.
Who do we think we are? This novel helps readers answer for themselves.