Behind Every Great Man . . .

Kate Christensen, winning for
Kate Christensen, winning for "The Great Man," said the PEN/Faulkner "always seemed unattainable." (By Jon Lewis -- Doubleday Via Associated Press)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kate Christensen has won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for her novel "The Great Man," whose ironic title refers to a recently deceased painter but whose focus is on the women in his life.

"They're vibrant, curious, eccentric and fresh," said Molly Giles, one of the three judges who picked Christensen's novel out of around 350 submissions.

Among many books by better-known writers, said Victor LaValle, another judge, hers was one "I kept coming back to again and again."

Christensen, 45, was doing the laundry in her Brooklyn home when she got the news of the award, which was announced yesterday.

"I'm really shocked," she said in a telephone interview. To her, an award like the PEN/Faulkner "always seemed unattainable." Among other reasons, in the 28 years it has existed, only four other women have won.

"It's me and John Updike and Philip Roth. I was like, do women actually win this thing?" Christensen joked.

The "great man" of her novel is Oscar Feldman, a New York artist who resisted the 20th-century trend toward abstraction, winning fame and fortune by obsessively painting female nudes. Now that he's dead, at 78, two competing biographers are pursuing the women who've survived him -- notably his wife, his long-term mistress and his sister, herself a painter but less well-known.

"In literature, older women are not often given center stage," Christensen said. "It's the Oscars who get center stage."

The four other finalists were:

¿ Annie Dillard for "The Maytrees," a novel about a fractured family on Cape Cod that becomes, as Marilynne Robinson put it in The Washington Post, "a highly localized meditation on the question, Why are we here?"

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