A Museum Row

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, May 3, 2005


By Mary Kay Zuravleff

Farrar Straus and Giroux. 424 pp. $25

The Smithsonian Institution is many things, most of them quite wonderful -- one of the world's greatest museums, a powerful magnet that draws zillions of tourists to Washington and thus a central part of the city's economy, an added bonus for local residents who get to drop in during its few quiet periods -- but to the best of my knowledge it has rarely if ever been the inspiration and setting for a novel. More erudite readers may rush in to nominate titles that have escaped my attention, but Mary Kay Zuravleff's "The Bowl Is Already Broken" seems to me to have cornered the market.

No, she doesn't call it the Smithsonian Institution, it's the National Institution of Arts and Sciences; same difference. And, no, the specific branch of the museum where the action occurs isn't the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, it's the Museum of Asian Art; again, same difference. There's proof of this on just about every page, but here's the clincher, in which the protagonist remembers leaving what's (obviously) the Smithsonian Metro stop:

"She thought of that ride up the escalator, the white Capitol dome straight ahead, the Castle slowly rising into the foreground. Once the escalator brought you up to ground level, the Museum of Asian Art was seated at your right hand, along with the Department of Agriculture. Natural History and American History were on your left, and the Washington Monument had your back. It was a heady presentation, astounding for its concentration."

Heady indeed. If you live in Washington and haven't seen it, you don't really live in Washington. Zuravleff, among the many jobs she has held, for nine years was senior editor of publications at the Freer and Sackler Galleries -- where, as this novel makes abundantly plain, she kept her eyes wide open, for "The Bowl Is Already Broken" is nothing if not knowledgeable about the inner workings of museums and the specifics of Asian art and culture.

Its protagonist is Promise Whittaker, 43 years old, "a petite, cartoon-voiced scholar whose home life could be generously described as chaotic," whose specialty is "sixteenth-century paintings devoted to a thirteenth-century Persian poet," Jalaluddin Rumi, whose verse and aphorisms make occasional appearances in the course of this narrative. As the novel opens Whittaker is acting director of the museum and presiding over a momentous occasion: the unveiling of a precious Chinese porcelain bowl newly acquired by the museum: "It spent a few decades with China's imperial family and then was sent to the court of Louis the Sixteenth, who made a present of it to America's minister to France, the young Thomas Jefferson. At the end of his life, plagued by debt, Jefferson sold it to a collector in Sevres. . . . It left France for Germany in the nineteenth century; fifty years later, it traveled back to America in Marlene Dietrich's suitcase."

Those are the words of Arthur Franklin, "curator of Chinese ceramics," whose "excitement and anxiety, in combination with antidepressants and megavitamins, made him volatile as rocket fuel." Indeed. Possessed by some bizarre impulse, Franklin removes the bowl from the case in which it is displayed and waves the million-dollar bauble triumphantly before the crowd of bigfeet assembled to welcome it to Washington. Then, in a moment of sublime ineptitude, he drops it. It clatters down the stairs, crumbling into tiny pieces.

Thus the story begins. The unveiling and subsequent catastrophe take place in January 2000. The scene shifts back to the summer of 1999, when the museum's director, Joseph Lattimore, receives a shocking memorandum from Cecil Hawthorne, secretary of the institution: "We would be negligent to ignore the lack of food service on the National Mall. To fulfill our responsibilities, the decision has been made to reconfigure the Museum of Asian Art as a food court worthy of our guests." After all, why should Asian art have "such a prominent place on the National Mall" when the ever-hungry "guests" need still more french fries and pizza to help enlarge still further the national waistline?

Lattimore is appalled, protests and is informed that it's a done deal. So he quits and heads for remotest Asia, the desert region of Niya in northwest China, in search of the antiquities that are his greatest love. Meantime, the Museum of Asian Art in its final hours must have an acting director, and Promise -- against all expectations -- is chosen. Promise, in her post-hippie clothing, with a goofy husband and two children and a third beginning to make a conspicuous bulge beneath her floppy skirts, is assumed to be a softie who'll compliantly permit the museum's demise, but she turns out to be a tiger as soon as she learns what's going on.

Never mind that the museum has "one of the largest collections of Asian art in America." The problem at the institution, as the secretary tells Lattimore before his departure for Niya, is that "Development and Membership rule the roost" and that "we are strapped." Give the masses what they want: "Development says the people want bathrooms and bagels near the subway, and when they stand atop the Metro escalator, they see your building," just as real-world Metro riders see the Sackler when they stand atop the escalator. Bathrooms and bagels? Perfect!

Along the way to the resolution of the museum's crisis, a lot takes place. Min Chen, a curator desperate to have a second child, is discovered skimming museum funds to pay for infertility treatments. Arthur Franklin gets into a hot affair with Talbot Perry, an excessively handsome auxiliary director and specialist in Japanese art. Leo, Promise's husband, takes a leave from his job at Amnesty International to help lead the attack on those who want to eliminate the museum. Chaos reigns back at the house he and Promise share with their kids.

The moral of the story, as Lattimore describes it to Promise, comes from a "great teacher" who held up a glass before a skeptical student and said: "I like this glass. It's useful, holding water for me to drink when I'm thirsty, and it is beautiful. Also, it was a gift, which makes it special and reminds me of the friend who gave it to me. But I am not attached to this glass, because it is transitory -- one day it will slip from my hand or be knocked over. I accept that; in fact, for me, the glass is already broken." Or, to put it a bit less inscrutably, "Nothing lasts forever."

Which brings us to the bad news. That moral is repeated in different ways over and over and over. Like everything else in "The Bowl Is Already Broken," it just goes on too long. Zuravleff is very smart, knows a lot about her subject and writes very well, but she can't let go of anything. Porcelain? We get lectures on porcelain. Niya? We get lectures on Niya. Promise's domestic life? We get endless scenes in which she and Leo and the children natter on about nothing of consequence. True, that's just how a lot of domestic chatter sounds, but one of the novelist's tasks is to be discriminating and selective, to single out what matters and eliminate what doesn't. This Zuravleff simply hasn't done. For any number of reasons, I very much wanted to like "The Bowl Is Already Broken," and there are indeed many things to like about it, but in the end it left me far more exasperated and exhausted than pleased.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company