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With ‘One Woman Show,’ Christine Coulson conjures a life through museum wall labels

Christine Coulson is the author of "One Woman Show"
Taylor Jewell
Christine Coulson is the author of "One Woman Show"

In Christine Coulson’s wildly original new novel, she envisions her main character as a work of art, relating the woman’s entire life story through museum wall labels. That’s right, wall labels — those little descriptions posted next to works on the walls of a gallery, the ones you may or may not read as you peruse an exhibition.

In “One Woman Show,” we first meet Kitty Whitaker as a 5-year-old, a precious object in her parents’ collection, who’s described as “a delirious display of Bernini verve and unrivaled WASP artistry.” From there she evolves into “Dreamer,” “Fiance,” “Bride,” “Society Force” and other monikers, as Coulson continues to track the stages of Kitty’s life. On the right side of the book, we see the labels — never more than 75 words each — written in that familiar gallery format. And the left sides are blank, an invitation for readers to envision the artworks being described.

It’s a sparse but incredibly effective format that Coulson spent decades perfecting as a writer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Kitty moves from collection to collection, Coulson offers ever-so-brief snapshots that speak to 20th-century womanhood, marriage, possession and power. It’s sometimes snarky, sometimes sad, with enough poignant moments to make me wish it could go on and on.

And that’s the magic of this tiny but powerful novel. You can sit down and read it in less time than it takes to drive to the art museum, but you’ll be thinking about it for far longer. If you appreciate truly original structure and storytelling, put this modern masterwork on your reading list.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.