Behind every great man is a great big shadow, cast long over all the friends, lovers, and acolytes lucky (or unlucky) enough to land inside his world. And then there are the children, who never actually get to choose. As The Italian Teacher opens in a paint-spattered Roman studio circa 1955, we meet the appropriately named Bear Bavinsky, a celebrated American artist and incurable rogue — he considers Picasso his closest rival in life and incipient legend — whose bold, colorful canvases are as large-scale as his appetites. The bursts of manic energy that Bear doesn’t direct toward working or charming wealthy patrons out of their palazzos trickle down to his young family, a shy Canadian ceramicist named Natalie (not his first wife, and far from his last) and their only child, a son. Five-year-old Charles, affectionately known as Pinch, is everything his father isn’t: shy, recessive, chronically unsure of his place in the world. As he grows, the struggle to forge his own identity takes him from Italy to London, Toronto, and rural France, a boy on a perpetually elusive quest for selfness.
Rachman (2010’s best-selling The Imperfectionists) draws his characters with a specificity so sharp it borders on cruel. Bear is the kind of jolly, oblivious narcissist who devours the oxygen in every room he enters, and Pinch is his little wooden nickel, the lump of dough that somehow failed to rise. But after several hundred pages that seem like sad checkpoints (albeit wonderfully written ones) on a trail of beta-male woe, Teacher finds a lovely and unexpected grace note, a left-field redemption made even sweeter by its long and winding path. B+