The Artist and her Portraits

A Review of Indelicacy by Amina Cain

For more on the author, visit her website:


I am sorry I have been a bit MIA. I finished my semester and felt…like not doing anything. Not writing, not reading, not writing about books. But after too many episodes of Love Island – UK of course – I have come back to it all.

So, it feels fitting to be talk about Indelicacy by Amina Cain. The novel is about Vitória, who goes from a maid at an art museum with dreams of writing, to the wife of a wealthy man. She has the freedom to write after marriage but has another set of rules and expectations that keep her from it fully.

I didn’t really know anything about this book when I picked it up. I saw it on other people’s reading lists and couldn’t stop thinking about the cover. It’s beautiful and I like beautiful things. The content of the book didn’t disappoint either. The story is outside of time but still comes from the legacies of Victorian novels written by female authors. The book is well-written, interesting, and purposefully sparse. There is so much space in this novel and it allows what is there to really stand our. This all could not work, it could be confusing, but Cain makes it work. Cain made me want to stay in Vitória’s world, lavish in it as the narrator herself does in the world she creates.

We all carry our lives in us, not just our problems or nightmares, but something of what we were before” (p75).

One of the main things I took away from the book is the point of view mimics, or portrays, the artist’s mind. We are in first person, Vitória is telling her own story. She is the lens through which we read the world. It’s her story, it’s her writing, and she represents her life as if it is art. I think because to her it is. Throughout the novel, Vitória writes descriptions of paintings – on a side note, this feels like a good writing exercise – and the novel feels no different. (On the front cover, there is a plaque describing the book as if it were a painting in a museum.) Vitória, maybe artists in general, look at reality as if it is abstract and their representations of it are in focus – background, foreground.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Cain had this to say about Vitória’s point of view:

The novel was written very much through a process of looking at and describing art, as well as objects […] It is the way in which she [Vitória] makes contact with the world, finds her place in it, and feels alive. Her looking is active, the first part of her writing process. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of not separating art from life, that a person can live creatively, not just in what s/he does, but in how s/he sees […] So Vitória is transcribing the paintings she sees, but she is also transcribing a reality for herself, and the paintings and other objects begin to make up the imagery of her life, as well as her writing. She finds them so pleasurable that they intoxicate her, drive her to writing. She wants to go further into what looking at them gives her. For her, there’s almost an addictive quality to all of this” (question 3, para 6).

Vitória is always on the cusp of real intimacy, but her writing pulls her away. There is so much distance between Vitoria and everyone else in her life and the reader. We don’t know her background, we only know her and this moment. A snapshot, a glimpse with no past, no future, just a present. Like when she’s listening to Solange and her husband have sex and then masturbates. Even the plan to set up her husband and Solange, so that she can be free of her marriage. To Vitória it’s a plot like all others. Events and connects seems almost abstract to her. When she catches them, she laments about how cliché her husband sleeping with the maid is, a story that has been told before. This is how she processes the world, how she sees it.

Immediately after, I burst out crying. It was sad to touch oneself in a moment such as this. It might even be pathetic. Or weird. I was weird […] It has obviously been easy for him [husband] to have sex with Solange […] it was a cliché and I knew he didn’t mind them, but I did” (p148).

I don’t say this to mean she is cruel. She knows this is not how other people think, but she has not other way. She cannot help it. It is who she is. It is what makes her an artist. And if she wasn’t, we wouldn’t have her story. We wouldn’t have so many stories.

It may seem like I feel too strong about this aspect of the novel, but I remember being young and thinking I was crazy for having so many stories in my head, for seeing things a different way than everyone else. It was only after I embraced the stories that I got better at writing them down. Hiding from the story inside of you is one way to make sure it never goes away, never gets resolved.

In the end, Vitória resolves her stories. She gets the freedom she wants. The financial ability to not work a day job, the quietness to write, and the time. She has all her time to devote to her true passion. Instead of feeling isolating, this feels uninhibited. I think the last line says a lot about space, about ourselves, about writing, and about being in the world instead of just living in it.

Still in the process of becoming, the soul makes room” (p 158).

Thank you for reading! A new blog will be up next week, myself willing, and at a regular schedule for the rest of the summer.

By katelyn Rose Conroy

Katelyn Conroy is an emerging writer from Long Island, New York, who currently resides in New York City. She currently attends CUNY City College's MFA program and will graduate in the Spring of 2021. She has been published in The Bridge: Bluffton University Literary Magazine and Manhattan Magazine.

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