Reese Witherspoon’s new Book Club pick is not for the faint of heart — nor for those looking for a breezy mental escape.
On Thursday, Reese announced her latest choice as Still Lives, the new novel from Maria Hummel. The book is a page-turning suspense saga set in the Los Angeles art world, unfurling a mystery out of the disappearance of an iconic feminist artist. When she doesn’t show up to her own, splashy exhibition, museum editor Maggie Richter investigates what may have happened to her — before being drawn into deeper questions about why.
Yet while Still Lives, evidently, has a heck of a hook to draw in a wide swath of readers, the book isn’t quite the escapist thriller the bones of the plot might indicate. Indeed, it’s a provocative book that digs deeply into art’s history of depicting women brutally and fetishistically, and that probes difficult questions about Western culture’s view and treatment of women’s bodies. It manages an impressive twofer: It sucks you into a compelling story, before forcing you to contemplate the big, uncomfortable ideas it’s considering.
It’s a fresh choice for Reese’s Book Club, to be sure. To talk about the book’s themes as well as the exciting news, EW caught up with Hummel in an extensive interview. Check it out below, and buy your copy of Still Lives here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Still Lives is about to be opened up to a broader audience: What do you hope new readers take away?
MARIA HUMMEL: New readers: take me away with you to your exotic destinations! I see them all over Instagram, and am especially partial to beaches and old monasteries. I could fit into a decent-sized suitcase, and currently have lots of openings in the long Vermont winter.
You’ve been published for many years now. How does it feel to get this recognition, or platform, at this stage of your career?
It’s a bit like walking at the edge of the Pacific for miles and miles, and then finally jumping into it. I thought I knew what it was, but it feels like an entirely different element.
Still Lives is risky and provocative — not necessarily what a broad Book Club would go for. Talk a little bit about your approach with this novel.
I think a novelist’s job is to inhabit difficult question; i.e. why are we culturally obsessed with beautiful, mutilated women? In my case, I wanted to invite as many readers as possible to inhabit mine with me, and mystery fiction seemed like the best fit. I was dazzled by the way Tana French’s revelations about changing Ireland are embedded in her rich plots, and by Megan Abbott’s multi-book commentary on female adolescence in her thrillers. Also, ever since I worked in a museum, I thought it would be a great place to set a murder. Not that I had any victims in mind.
You evoke Los Angeles so beautifully in the book. What’s your relationship to the city and what did you want to say about it?
There’s a great line by the poet Randall Jarrell, “Back in Los Angeles, we missed / Los Angeles” that sums up my whole feeling about L.A. It evolves so fast, that practically every time you walk out the door, it’s a different city. With so many more freaking people in it! Also, I lived in Hollywood at a pivotal time in my life — my late twenties, the last time I truly felt young — so my descriptions are probably soaked in nostalgia.
You’re telling a feminist story through the lens of the art world. Where did the idea for exploring that particular milieu stem from?
When I worked at MOCA in L.A., I saw the art world from many sides — the striving young artists and the established stars, the curators, the collectors, the gallerists — and it blew my mind, the ways that artists’ fates were shaped by the people they knew. I was more of a book person, so I had no stake in this stuff, career-wise. I could just watch and learn. Also, the art world seemed like a perfect backdrop for a narrative about our increasingly visual culture.
Any authors inspire you with Still Lives? Any books specifically?
Tana French and Kate Atkinson are pole stars. And deep, deep under this plot are my experiments with the clay of The Great Gatsby, trying to remake it in a feminine image.
If this were to become a movie, any dream casting or creative ideas?
Reese Witherspoon, of course! Many months ago, I wrote her a long letter, but I never sent it because I didn’t know where. I also wrote one to Jane Campion, but I don’t know where to send that one, either.