Summary and book reviews of The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins

The Shadow Catcher

A Novel

by Marianne Wiggins

The Shadow Catcher
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 336 pages
    Jun 2008, 352 pages

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Book Summary

The Shadow Catcher dramatically inhabits the space where past and present intersect, seamlessly interweaving narratives from two different eras: the first fraught passion between turn-of-the-twentieth-century icon Edward Curtis (1868-1952) and his muse-wife, Clara; and a twenty-first-century journey of redemption.

Narrated in the first person by a reimagined writer named Marianne Wiggins, the novel begins in Hollywood, where top producers are eager to sentimentalize the complicated life of Edward Curtis as a sunny biopic: "It's got the outdoors. It's got adventure. It's got the do-good element." Yet, contrary to Curtis's esteemed public reputation as servant to his nation, the artist was an absent husband and disappearing father. Jump to the next generation, when Marianne's own father, John Wiggins (1920-1970), would live and die in equal thrall to the impulse of wanderlust.

Were the two men running from or running to? Dodging the false beacons of memory and legend, Marianne amasses disparate clues -- photographs and hospital records, newspaper clippings and a rare white turquoise bracelet -- to recover those moments that went unrecorded, "to hear the words only the silent ones can speak." The Shadow Catcher, fueled by the great American passions for love and land and family, chases the silhouettes of our collective history into the bright light of the present.

The Shadow Catcher

Let me tell you about the sketch by Leonardo I saw one afternoon in the Queen's Gallery in London a decade ago, and why I think it haunts me. The Queen's Gallery is on the west front side of Buckingham Palace, on a street that's always noisy, full of taxis rushing round the incongruous impediment of a massive residence in the middle of a route to Parliament and Westminster Abbey and, more importantly, a train station named Victoria. The Queen's Gallery is small, neither well maintained nor adequately lit, and when I went there to see the Royal Collection of Da Vinci drawings, the day was pissing rain and cold and damp, and the room smelled of wet wool seasoned in the lingering aroma of fry-up and vinegar, an atmosphere far removed from the immediacy, muscularity, and sunny beauty of Da Vinci's subjects.

There were drawings of male adolescents, drawings of chubby infants, drawings of rampant horses, toothless women, old men with spiky white hairs on their ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Marianne Wiggins's new novel, The Shadow Catcher, centers in part on the life of a real historical figure, Edward Sheriff Curtis. Discuss the unique process of weaving fact and fiction: What difficulties it might pose? What artistic freedoms might emerge?

  2. The book features an unusual narrative technique, combining historical fiction with more documentary-style biography and history, as well as a personal narrative that reads like memoir. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story in this way?

  3. The chapters in the novel about Edward and Clara are essentially told from Clara's point of view. Is this ultimately more a story about Clara than Edward?

  4. The intimate details of a personal relationship that unfolded in the past ...
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BookBrowse Review


When categorizing books by genre for BookBrowse I have been struck by the thought that a novel is simply a name for a book that doesn't fit neatly into any one genre. The Shadow Catcher is such a "novel" - combining two parallel storylines, one historical fiction, one contemporary; plus a dollop of autobiography, art criticism (supported by 30 interleaved photos) and travelogue. The result is an intelligent novel that defies categorization.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

The Seattle Times - David Laskin

Is there some deep meaning lurking here about shadows, negatives, the fast-and-loose interplay between fiction and history, identity and dream? And how does any of this relate to the iconic, impossible photographer at the center of her book? Wiser reviewers than I may know the answers. By the time I finished The Shadow Catcher, I had pretty much ceased to care about — — or believe in — any of it.

The Houston Chronicle - Suzanne Ferriss

Unfortunately, the connections between the two fathers appear forced, based on a series of implausible coincidences. And while engaging, Clara's history is punctuated with stereotypical moments of romance and family drama. In a novel otherwise so accomplished, these weaknesses are puzzling. Perhaps these instances of artifice were self-conscious on Wiggins' part, and the novel itself means to underscore the artificiality of any attempt at narrative wholeness.

Bob Hoover - The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wiggins' "Twilight Zone" approach costs her valuable points as a novelist, straining, as it does, our confidence in her story-telling integrity .... That's too bad, because the Curtis' tale is beautifully told, capturing so artfully the raw landscape of the late-19th-century Northwest and the yearnings and hopes of its characters.

Cleveland Plain Dealer - Karen Schechner

The increasingly far-fetched plot begins to creak, making the whole enterprise feel jury-rigged. But however scattershot, The Shadow Catcher brings into focus the inchoate issues of identity, isolation and family in the context of an iconic turn-of-the-20th-century American artist, and racks up creative brownie points as genre-bending and philosophical fiction.

The San Francisco Chronicle - Jesse Berrett

Strictly as a piece of fiction, it's highly unsatisfactory by design, a glimpse of the limits of imagination when faced with a stubbornly unrevealing subject. The plot interrupts itself, skips over the main story and ends things hastily .... Wiggins' net effect is vertiginously enjoyable, a rambunctious puzzle-box that rewards dives into murky interpretive waters: The more effort you devote to thinking the book through, the greater its rewards.

Book Page - Alden Mudge

All this may sound a little heady. But Wiggins is an adventurous and risk-taking writer with extraordinary gifts. Her scenes and descriptions are so alive that they carry us willingly forward to engage with her in her quest. What kind of person was Edward S. Curtis? Who was her father? Who am I? Wiggins offers us the beauty, excitement and perplexity of the journey and leaves us to determine the answers on our own.

Washington Post - Wendy Smith

There are passages in Marianne Wiggins's eighth novel so piercingly beautiful that I put the book down, shook my head and simply said, "Wow."

The New York Times - Richard B. Woodward

Wiggins ably challenges the smug idea that we can easily distinguish truth and falsehood in telling anyone’s story, especially our own.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Suffused with Marianne's crackling social commentary and deceptively breezy self-discovery, Wiggins's eighth novel is a heartfelt tour de force.

Booklist - Elizabeth Dickie

Starred Review. Wiggins is a writer who paints elegant pictures with words. So who better to tell the story of Edward Sheriff Curtis, the enigmatic photographer of the American West, protege of J. P. Morgan, and friend of Theodore Roosevelt? .... This creative novel will not disappoint.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Marianne Wiggins was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1947. Her father, a farmer, preached in a conservative Christian church founded by her grandfather. She married at 17 and shortly after gave birth to a daughter, Lara, who she brought up on Martha's Vineyard (Lara is now a professional photographer in Los Angeles and took the jacket and author photo for The Shadow Catcher). Wiggins's first book was published in 1975 but it wasn't until 1984 with the publication of Separate Checks that she ...

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