The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Feast Your Eyes
Feast Your Eyes
by Myla Goldberg

Hardcover (16 Apr 2019), 336 pages.
(Due out in paperback Feb 2020)
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN-13: 9781501197840

The first novel in nearly a decade from Myla Goldberg, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Bee Season - a compelling and wholly original story about a female photographer grappling with ambition and motherhood, a balancing act familiar to women of every generation.

Feast Your Eyes, framed as the catalogue notes from a photography show at the Museum of Modern Art, tells the life story of Lillian Preston: "America's Worst Mother, America's Bravest Mother, America's Worst Photographer, or America's Greatest Photographer, depending on who was talking." After discovering photography as a teenager through her high school's photo club, Lillian rejects her parents' expectations of college and marriage and moves to New York City in 1955. When a small gallery exhibits partially nude photographs of Lillian and her daughter Samantha, Lillian is arrested, thrust into the national spotlight, and targeted with an obscenity charge. Mother and daughter's sudden notoriety changes the course of both of their lives and especially Lillian's career as she continues a life-long quest for artistic legitimacy and recognition.

Narrated by Samantha, Feast Your Eyes reads as a collection of Samantha's memories, interviews with Lillian's friends and lovers, and excerpts from Lillian's journals and letters - a collage of stories and impressions, together amounting to an astounding portrait of a mother and an artist dedicated, above all, to a vision of beauty, truth, and authenticity.

To Come.

Excerpted from Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg. Copyright © 2019 by Myla Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The novel itself is the catalogue from Lillian Preston's photography exhibit at MoMA. What do we gain from this nontraditional narrative framing? Does it grant us better insight into the characters? The photography?
  2. The catalogue begins: "Feast your eyes, America. Here she is: America's Worst Mother, America's Bravest Mother, America's Worst Photographer, or America's Greatest Photographer." What does this proclamation reveal about the expectations of women as mothers and artists? How does it set the stage for what unfolds?
  3. On page 32, it's noted that Lillian's portraits, which often featured nudity, "were a way for her to study what lay at the core of people." How does this concept of nudity differ from that of a male artist depicting a nude woman? Can this be understood as the "female gaze"?
  4. Lillian is often adamant that there is no connection between her nonautobiographical photographs and her life. Do you think this is possible? What do you think is the art/life connection?
  5. How do Lillian's precluded abortion, pregnancy, and Samantha's eventual birth reflect the social and medical norms of the 1950s? What did it mean to choose to be a single mother in that era? Later in the book, when Jane chooses to get an abortion, the procedure has been legalized. How does Jane's legal abortion experience differ from Lillian's illegal one? In what ways is it the same?
  6. Lillian moves with Ken from New York to Brooklyn Heights in 1956. Do you think Lillian's photographs change as her New York setting changes? Can you discern a certain Manhattan era of her work? A Brooklyn era? How do we watch New York evolve over the years?
  7. Why do you think Lillian is so resolute against having another child with Ken? How does Lillian's choice to only have one child, Samantha, impact her life and work?
  8. On page 150, Samantha writes: "Photographs have an annoying habit of corroding whatever real memories you have of a moment until the photo is all that's left." What is the relationship between memory and photography?
  9. We are reintroduced to Lillian's most infamous photograph Mommy is sick in the catalogue notes. What does it reveal about abortion in pre Roe v. Wade abortion? What does the controversy surrounding it reveal about women's rights in the '60s? Did knowing the backstory about the photo impact your understanding of it?
  10. In response to the New York court case and the controversy, Samantha changes her name to Jane. In what other ways, was their mother-daughter relationship affected due to all the negative attention?
  11. Years later, after abortion became legal, Mommy is sick becomes popular, inspiring punk rock songs and granting Samantha a sort of cultural cachet. Can you think of other examples of works of art leading culture and having political impact?
  12. As she is dying, Lillian takes a series of portraits of herself tense with pain and then still. How do these photographs serve as a finale for her life's work?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Look at the collected photos in Sally Mann's Immediate Family, which caused controversy similar to Lillian's because it included shots of the photographer's nude children.
  2. Read Diane Arbus: Revelations, a collection of photos, letters, and diaries, put together by her daughter, telling the story of the photographer's life.


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A uniquely structured story about a controversial photographer trying to balance being a mother and an artist.

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Myla Goldberg's latest novel, Feast Your Eyes, is ostensibly about the works of fictional photographer Lillian Preston. As the plot progresses, however, it becomes clear it's about so much more, exploring the challenges of being an artist and a mother from the mid-1950s to mid-1970s, an era that saw the shifting of societal norms and illustrating the risks one may have to take to pursue individual and artistic freedom.

The book is laid out in the form of a catalogue created for a posthumous showing of 118 of Preston's best pictures at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with the description of each piece written by her daughter Samantha and supplemented by sections from Lillian's journal and interviews with her friends. Readers discover early on that her work was controversial; one photo in particular, titled "Mommy Is Sick", shows Lillian in bed, bleeding after having had an abortion (illegal at the time), with a semi-nude six-year-old Samantha offering her a glass of milk. The picture – along with six others that were named "The Samantha Series" - sparked outrage, arrest, and a brutal court case, changing Lillian's and Samantha's lives forever. Events became so painful for Samantha that she dropped her given name, choosing to be known by her middle name (Jane) so she could divorce herself from the eponymous photograph series. Her relationship with her mother was also damaged nearly beyond repair, and it's not until Lillian's early death from leukemia and Samantha reviewing her mother's boxes of photographs that she begins to understand how remarkable Lillian truly was.

Goldberg's writing captures her subject beautifully from start to finish. When the adult Samantha comes across the famous picture, it stirs up vivid memories from the day it was taken:

I remembered the dead feeling in my stomach that morning, when I realized my mother was too weak to take the glass of milk from my hand. I remembered sitting on the edge of the bed and holding the milk below her mouth. All she had to do was reach up a little with her hand to hold the glass but even then, the milk dribbled from her mouth and onto her chest. This made the deadness in my stomach fill my whole body, so big and deep and dark that for a while I couldn't breathe.

One of the more fascinating aspects about the novel is that in spite of the fact that the "catalogue" references 118 photographs, there are none in the book. Each is described fully, but it's left to the reader to visualize them.

I found the format in which the book is presented both brilliant and problematic. I love the imagination it required to write such a masterwork; Goldberg's ability to reveal her subjects through the catalogue entries is astonishing. It reminded me of a photo being developed, where the full picture becomes clear only gradually. The book is, itself, a work of art. The flip-side of the layout is that it makes the story somewhat disjointed and repetitive as scenes and memories overlap, and as a result I initially found it a slow read. I was a good 100 page in before it started to demand my attention. It was definitely worth the persistence, though. It's by far one of the most stylistically interesting novels I've read this year, and by the book's end it had become one of my all-time favorites.

Feast Your Eyes will undoubtably win Goldberg many well-deserved accolades; her gorgeous writing, compelling subject, and ingenious format make the novel a true stand-out. It will appeal to those who enjoy literary, character-driven novels, and would also make a wonderful book group selection.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Publishers Weekly
This is a memorable portrait of one artist's life.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.

Booklist (starred review)
This is a novel of infinite depth, of caring authenticity both intimate and societal, of mothers and daughters, art and pain, and transcendent love.

Author Blurb Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
This is an unflinching, deeply moving portrait of the artist, and a bravura performance in and of itself. I loved this book.

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Controversial 20th Century Female Photographers

Lillian Preston, the photographer at the heart of Feast Your Eyes, is fictional, but there are a number of controversial 20th century female photographers on whom she could be based, including Diane Arbus (1923-1971), Irina Ionesco (b.1930) and Sally Mann (b.1951).

Diane ArbusBorn Diane Nemerov, 18-year-old Diane Arbus received her first camera from her husband Allan shortly after their marriage. Together they opened a photography studio after WWII and sold their photos to magazines such as Vogue, but neither really enjoyed the work. Arbus eventually turned her attention to less structured, more spontaneous photography, roaming the streets of New York City with her camera. Esquire published her first photo essay in 1960, after which she gained notoriety, and she subsequently received two Guggenheim fellowships to continue her work. She ultimately became known for her photos of marginalized people – giants, dwarfs, those with disabilities or otherwise living on the outskirts of society. Her work was widely praised but some criticized it as exploitive. Arbus committed suicide in 1971 at age 48.

Irina IonescoIrina Ionesco is a French photographer with a murky past. According to Sunday Salon, "What is known for certain is that in the early 1970s Irina Ionesco appeared unexpectedly in the Parisian art photography community with a collection of strange and erotic black and white photographs. The photographs (some of which were self-portraits) were primarily portraits of women partially-dressed in elaborate costumes, surrounded by unusual or bizarre props. While some of the portraits are fairly straightforward, many include elements that are distinctly fetishistic. In those early photographs, the women are often looking toward the camera in a disinterested way — as if they are unimpressed and unconcerned by the viewer's attention." Like Goldberg's protagonist, Ionesco is best known for a photographic series that featured her young daughter, Eva. In the pictures Eva is posed much like Irina's other subjects: nude and in erotic postures, and the photos are still considered controversial. Eva, now a successful actress, director, and screenwriter, has sued her mother three times to date for emotional distress.

Sally MannSally Mann's career was inspired by her father's love of photography. Her first professional job as a photographer was for Washington and Lee University, which hired her to record the construction of their law building. The pictures were so well done that they were featured in her first exhibition and were also a part of her first photography book, Second Sight (1984). Although her speciality, according to some, is photographing landscapes that symbolize death and decay, she became famous for a series of pictures published in 1992 that featured her three children naked. Many found them beautiful and artistic, while other considered them child pornography. Mann has published numerous photography books, and has been the subject of two films – Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1994) and What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (2007).

By Kim Kovacs

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