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'The Italian Teacher' Paints A Troubled Father-Son Relationship

Great artists are known to have big egos — they can suck up all the air in a room if given half a chance. And living in the shadow of such greatness can stunt a person's growth, which is exactly what happens to the central character in Tom Rachman's new novel, The Italian Teacher. Rachman takes us through the life of Pinch Bavinsky, from his childhood adoration of his famous father to the disappointments of adulthood, and in the process, explores what it means to be an artist.

Rachman himself always wanted to be a writer, but he thought he needed to experience more of the world before immersing himself in fiction. So he became a journalist — and he had a good run — but his heart was never really in it. After several years, Rachman was on his way to a much needed vacation when he got an urgent phone call.

"All of a sudden my cell phone rang, and the bureau chief said, you know 'a bomb's gone off in this-and-this country, and we need to get you back here and fly there immediately,'" he recalls, "and my first thought was just complete dejection, I thought, 'no, I don't want to go,' in that moment I thought, 'I'm not a journalist.'"

Rachman borrowed from his life as a journalist for his debut novel, The Imperfectionists, a sad but often humorous look at the lives of the people who worked at a dying newspaper in Rome. And in his new one, he takes on the art world. "I was always fascinated with the arts, and with artists, all different forms of it," he says. "What is it that artists do all day? What is the nature of creativity? How do they come up with these ideas? Do they have a separate sort of vision? Are they people who deserve to have a different set of rules than the rest of us?"

The famous artist at the center of Rachman's story is Bear Bavinsky, who he describes as "a painter of huge, impassioned, expressionistic paintings. He's a charming, devil-may-care man. He's also a big, brawny, irresponsible man, and he's a man who demands that he be the center of everything."

The novel opens in Rome, where Bavinsky lives with his wife Natalie and their 5-year-old son, Pinch. Natalie is also an artist — though no one, including Bear, seems to take her work in ceramics very seriously. Instead, she and Pinch live their lives waiting for the moments when Bear gives them his attention.

But eventually Bear moves away, remarries and starts a new family — one of several he has scattered around the world. Pinch is left alone with his mother, whose highs and lows become increasingly extreme. As a teenager, he begins to paint, encouraged by his mother while yearning for his father's blessing. "He idealizes his father, and sees him as this potent, charming and widely-recognized star of the arts." Rachman says. "And he sees his mother struggling at the margins, and his terror is that he is ultimately more her than [his father]. So part of the journey of Pinch in this book is him figuring exactly who he is, and why he's trying to do art, and what his ultimate purpose is."

The funniest books are always very sad and the saddest books are always very funny for me.

One discouraging comment from his father and Pinch leaves his painting behind. Nothing seems to pan out for him; after college, the promise of true love and an academic career falls through. He ends up a lonely, at times comic figure, teaching Italian at a language school in London.

Pinch eventually becomes a kind of personal assistant to his father, and it's from this position that he finds a way to redeem his lost chances. He begins painting again, in secret. The nature of these paintings is not revealed until the end, when it becomes clear that Pinch has fashioned a kind of sweet revenge against his father. Throughout the book Rachman manages to grace Pinch's story with a touch of wry humor. "The funniest books are always very sad and the saddest books are always very funny for me. I think that there are an awful lot of tragic situations, sadness and insoluble pain that people go through, and yet there has to be humor to manage it, and I think that's something that I try to infuse my books with," he says.

Readers may flinch at times as Pinch tries and fails — again and again — at the game of life. But in the end, it's hard not to smile as his clever winning gambit is revealed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.