Spoiled rich kids at a New England art college; self-professed anti-establishment types who film themselves eating and call it art; a washed-up artist taking temporary teaching positions and gobbling Xanax to get by--it sounds like the stuff of parody. Make no mistake: Sirens & Muses can be wickedly funny. But it's with a straight face that Antonia Angress has written her exceedingly good debut novel, a shrewd and expertly sustained rumination on what it takes to be a self-supporting artist and whether it's even worth it.
Wrynn College of Art may have a multimillion-dollar endowment in the fall of 2011, but even with student loans and financial aid, sophomore Louisa Arceneaux, who hails from Breaux Bridge, La., is barely scraping by. Also burdensome is the guilt she feels about wanting to create something more borderless than what her mother calls her "Cajun art." Louisa's roommate, New Yorker Karina Piontek, knows that people are still talking about what happened to her the previous semester and, as the fall semester begins, she learns that her art-collector parents are divorcing. Karina's sort-of boyfriend, Wrynn senior Preston Utley, is idealistic, but clueless about what to do after graduation. At his Visiting Artist q&a, Robert Berger isn't thrilled when Preston, one of his students, insists that "you guys--the elites, the gatekeepers--are afraid of the Internet." And yet Robert can't deny that there's something familiar about Preston's irreverence.
Sirens & Muses follows these four individuals, gradually laying out their damage, finessing the relationships that exist among them, and otherwise rounding out their characters. Angress's novel is gripping and intriguing. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer