The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt


The Blazing World (2014), by Siri Hustvedt, analyzes many diverse themes. First, and foremost, it is a critique of New York's art world - a world blatantly sexist and youth-oriented. But most important, it is about value and what we value as a society, the fluidity of identity, and the difficulty of knowing oneself and those we love. (Gleaned from a YouTube interview with Siri Hustvedt, uploaded March 11, 2014,

The book is presented as an anthology of texts compiled by a fictional editor, Professor Hess. They document the life and times of the central character and installation artist, Harriet Burden. The novel is written as a series of texts - diary entries, written statements by family and friends, fiction from her son, and edited transcripts of interviews with her daughter (NPR Books, "A Delicate Arson: 'The Blazing World' Consumes Its Readers" by Amal El-Mohtar, March 15, 2014).

Harriet, better known as "Harry," is a complex and intriguing character. She is an imposing figure - over six feet tall with a huge bust.  Her personality is equally large and vibrant. She is described by another character as having red hues, overwhelming the sensibilities. But Harry also has an inner darkness. Much overshadowed, first by her father and later by her art-dealer husband, Harry is accustomed to living in the shadows. She creates her art without recognition and raises two children to be successes as an author and a documentary film-maker respectively.

After her husband dies, she decides to reinvent herself. She moves to Brooklyn, sets up a studio, takes in vagrant artists she meets at a local bar, and then hires 3 handsome male artists in tandem to sign their names to her works. They become instant successes. This heist has complicated effects on the young artists as well as on her. As Harriet reflects after one of her psychoanalytic sessions:

What I did know was that I had been sitting on myself for years and that something had happened to me. Dr. Fertig used the word inhibitions. I had become less inhibited, untied and unfettered. I had become Harriet Unbound, only fifty-five then, but counting, and I did wonder about the other paths, the alternative existences, the other Harry Burden who had looked like April Rain, petite and pinkish, or a Harry who had been born a boy, a real Harry, not a Harriet. (p. 30)

The Blazing World explores the "what-ifs" that are universal. Harry is presented in her own words and in the reflections of those who knew and loved her. She is empathetic and complicated. In her book,
Siri Hustvedt explores the complexities of relationships - those with one's children, parents, childhood friends, and husbands in a relatable way. Moreover, she illuminates the effects of celebrity and money in a society that values both. Looking back on the 70s, the reader is reminded of the difficulties of being a woman in a world that favors men.

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