A masterful novel about the son of a great painter striving to create his own legacy, by the bestselling author of The Imperfectionists.
Conceived while his father, Bear, cavorted around Rome in the 1950s, Pinch learns quickly that Bear's genius trumps all. After Bear abandons his family, Pinch strives to make himself worthy of his father's attention--first trying to be a painter himself; then resolving to write his father's biography; eventually settling, disillusioned, into a job as an Italian teacher in London. But when Bear dies, Pinch hatches a scheme to secure his father's legacy--and make his own mark on the world.
With his signature humanity and humor, Tom Rachman examines a life lived in the shadow of greatness, cementing his place among his generation's most exciting literary voices.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Seated in a copper bathtub, Bear Bavinsky dunks his head under steaming water and shakes out his beard, flinging droplets across the art studio. He thumbs a bolt of shag into his pipe and flicks a brass Zippo lighter, sucking hard to draw down the flame, tobacco glowing devil-red, smoke coiling toward the wood-beam ceiling. He exhales and stands. Beads of water rain off his torso.
His five-year-old son, Pinch, hoists a thick bath towel, arms trembling under the weight. Bear runs his fingers through receding reddish-blond hair and—hand on the boy’s head for balance—steps onto newspapers previously used for wiping paintbrushes. His wet footprints bleed across the print, encircling dabs of oily blue and swipes of yellow.
“That’s final!” Natalie declares from across the studio, chewing her fingernail.
“Final, is it? You certain?” Bear asks his wife. “Not the slightest doubt?”
“All I’ve got is doubts.”
He proceeds to the iron front door and shoulders it open, dusky light from the alleyway pushing past him, glinting off glass pigment jars, illuminating abused paintbrushes in turpentine and canvases drying along the bare-brick walls. In the early-evening air, he stands in place, a fortyish male animal, naked but for the towel twisted around his neck, his shadow narrowing up the studio, hurdling the tub, darkening his wife and their little boy. “Absolutely positive then?”
Natalie yanks a strand of black hair over her eyes, wraps it around her baby finger, whose tip reddens. She darts into the WC at the back of the studio and closes the warped door, her head bumping the bare bulb, which alternates glare and gloom as she consults the mirror: emerald ball gown cinched at the waist, box-pleated skirt, polka-dot overlay. It’s as if she were wearing three outfits at once, none of them hers. She tucks her hair under a cream beret but it hardly helps, the same gawky twenty-six-year-old looking back, all elbows and knees, a manly jaw, deep- set black eyes, as uncertain as if drawn with smudged charcoal, the worry lines added in fine- nib pen.
She joins Bear, who remains naked in the doorway, a puff of smoke released from his pipe. “I’m not even acceptable,” she tells him, and he rests a rough palm against the swell of her bosom, firmly enough to quicken her pulse. He strides to his leather suitcase and plucks out neckties, one for himself, one for their son. Bear raises the louder tie, holding it up as if considering a mackerel. He sends Pinch to fetch the canvas shears, with which he snips one of the ties in half, twirling it around the boy’s neck. “What do you say, kiddo?” Bear grins, the beard rising to his eyes, which disappear into slits. “Natty, I love the hell out of you. And I listen the hell out of you. But damn it, sweetie, we are going.”
She clutches one hand in the other. “Well then, hurry!” she responds, quickstepping past her husband, nearly stumbling as she crouches to knot their son’s tie. Natalie touches Pinch’s forehead, her hand throbbing against his brow, jittery fingers like a secret message: “We waited all this time, Pinchy, and now he’s here!”
Bear, who moved in only weeks earlier, approaches his son, mussing the boy’s fine sandy hair (quite like Dad’s), playfully flicking the kid’s nervous chin (like his mother’s), while Pinch’s blue eyes (with an urgency all their own) gaze up, awaiting his father’s command.
Reading Group Guide
Seated in a copper bathtub, Bear Bavinsky dunks his head under steaming water and shakes out his beard, flinging droplets across the art studio. . . . He exhales and stands. Beads of water rain off his torso. His five-year-old son, Pinch, hoists a thick bath towel, arms trembling under the weight. Bear runs his fingers through receding reddish-blond hair and—hand on the boy’s head for balance—steps onto newspapers previously used for wiping paintbrushes. (page 3)
The Italian Teacher opens in Rome, 1955. Young Pinch lives with his mother, Natalie, a ceramicist, and father, the intense and riotous Bear Bavinsky, a celebrated painter. Both Natalie and Pinch blossom under the blaze that is Bear’s attention. Desperate to be a painter like his father, Pinch spends his every free moment studying the greats and emulates the man he sees as the greatest of them all. Bear’s favorite of his many children, Pinch itches to secure the artistic endorsement of his elusive father, who never stays in one place, or with one family, for long. But with only a few words, Bear dismisses his talent, and Pinch abandons painting for decades.
He turns to art history when he goes away to college, finding fellowship with the boisterous artist Marsden and love with an ambitious girlfriend, Cilla Barrows. Loyalty to Bear supersedes other connections, and as one effort after another falls through, Pinch settles into life as an Italian teacher in London. When Bear falls ill, though, Pinch sees a way to break free—and hatches an audacious plan to secure his father’s reputation while perhaps, at long last, proving to himself and the world that the spark of talent still burns in him.
As in his first two novels, Rachman demonstrates a genius for creating compelling characters who pursue their dreams even as they seem just a step out of reach. In his hands, Pinch—anxious to be successful and yearning to be loved—offers us a fresh perspective on the age-old debate about what can be forgiven in the name of genius.
1. Pinch, Natalie, and Bear all produce art—but for very different reasons. Which is the true artist?
2. Pinch spends years trying to emulate his father, and then, when that fails, trying to escape his father’s shadow. Do you think he ever succeeds?
3. Bear and Natalie are vastly different people. In what ways is Pinch like his father? How does he resemble his mother?
4. Bear is a larger-than-life character, and Pinch often fades into the background. In college, he befriends Marsden, another larger-than-life personality who has “styled himself a bohemian” (page 90). Why do you think Pinch wants to be friends with Marsden?
5. Throughout his life, Bear begins and ends several marriages, and has many children, but refuses to share his legacy with them. What do you think Bear owed his children? Do you think parents are obligated to pass down their earnings to their children?
6. When Pinch gives up painting, and then art history, he decides to teach Italian. Why do you think this was appealing to him?
7. After Pinch and Barrows break up, Pinch distances himself from romantic relationships. Even his marriage to Julie is short-lived and tepid. His relationship with Jing is perfunctory and polite. Do you think Bear’s incident with Barrows made it difficult for Pinch to get close to women?
8. Pinch often does not finish what he starts, and he struggles with self-worth throughout the novel. In what ways did his father hold him back? Or did Pinch get in his own way? Is a parent responsible for the mistakes of a child?
9. Despite his contentious relationship with his father, Pinch finds himself taking care of his father as he ages. How does this change their relationship? Have you had to care for an aging parent?
10. The Italian Teacher gives a reader a glimpse into the art world. Did anything surprise you about this business?
11. Bear often sucks the energy out of the room and disrupts lives in painful ways. He’s called a genius in artistic circles. To what extent does his talent excuse his behavior? Do you think Bear Bavinsky would be able to behave this way in the present time?
12. Pinch lives in many countries throughout the novel. He’s technically Canadian, but was born in Italy. He doesn’t have one place he considers home. How do you think this affected him? Why do you think Rachman chose this?
13. Well into adulthood, the nickname “Pinch” sticks. As the book progresses, people begin calling him Charles, but the nickname follows him throughout his life. How do you think this affected him, if at all?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“Pinch doesn’t know. But he supposes that this is how culture works: the taste-makers call something important until it becomes so, making themselves important in the process.” The Italian Teacher is the fourth novel by British-born journalist and author, Tom Rachman. Charlie Bavinsky (Pinch to his parents) always seemed to exist in the shadow of his father, renowned mid-twentieth century artist, Bear Bavinsky. Pinch was always trying to measure up, always failing to make the grade. And yet, he became his father’s chosen heir. As a teenager in Rome, Pinch tried to put into practice the one lesson in painting that Bear had given him, but: “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck – all bundled into a single lifespan. What a person Dad was! Pinch decides that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient: he lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him. For the first time, he accepts this.” Bear Bavinsky was larger-than-life; arrogant but oh so charismatic. Pinch’s mother, Natalie was Bear’s third wife of many, wives and lovers alike: “When a woman sits for Bear, Pinch knows, it’s nearly a sexual act and often leads to one.” Bear’s many children all experienced the same neglect and longing for attention during childhood. Despite this, and failing personally at art, Pinch vows to produce a Bear biography that lauds the man and his work, that exalts his memory. While he never writes it, ending up as a poorly paid Italian teacher in London, he does manage to secretly do something about his father’s work that has his half-sister telling him: “’When you see what he accomplished, what he left behind,’ Birdie continues, ‘maybe he was right how he acted. Would it be better if he’d shown up for softball games, only to die without doing what he knew, knew, would be so great? It’s bigger than us. Bigger than us, Charlie… Oh, Daddy! The art was so much better than the man.’” This is a story that meanders along Pinch’s life, following this frustrating and often seemingly hopeless character along his lacklustre path, watching as he seizes mediocrity from the jaws of even mild achievement. This is likely to have readers wondering where it’s all going, and some patience is definitely required as Rachman creates the circumstance and the mindset for the final scene. And that final scene has an exquisite twist, thus generously rewarding that patience. Rachman’s characters are a little quirky; his settings (Rome, Toronto, the Pyrenees, London) are well rendered. Rachman’s University experience in Toronto, his time as an AP correspondent in Rome and his knowledge of London are apparent in the story, which also highlights the insincerity and pretentiousness of the art world. This is a moving tale contained within an utterly gorgeous cover.
A wonderful book that, unlike many contemporary ones, gives the reader a basically decent man who never gives up in his attempts to find the affirmation he never received from his father. The author's solution to Charles' predicament is clever and very satisfying, and the send-up of the "art world" and the art market patrons is delivered with a subtle, light touch that is still quite funny. I felt a real affection for Charles and that cannot be said for many contemporary novelist's subjects. I recommend this book with great enthusiasm!
Lots of great characters but unfortunately the main character is a total loser.