Bluebeard, a title borrowed from a classic Perrault fairy tale, might be one of Vonnegut’s lesser works (sure, it’s no Slaughterhouse 5), but I still had fun reading it. The premise – an old man hiding a secret in a locked space around his house and the story that leads up to the reveal – may not be in any way new, but it doesn’t make the book less compelling. Rabo Karabekian, now an old man of Armenian origin now leaving alone in a big mansion in the Hamptons, comes across Circe Berman on his property. The woman – slightly strange and indiscreet, manages to wiggle into an invitation to live in his house. Thus, he finds out she is a famous writer – Polly Madison (some kind of Danielle Steel, I assumed) and she encourages him to write his own life story. So, Bluebeard is born as first person narration, following Rabo’s life history: from his parents’ arrival in America after the Armenian genocide, to his first interest in art, his apprenticeship under famous (and fictional) illustrator Dan Gregory, to his involvement in the Abstract Expressionist movement (alongside real painters – like Jackson Pollok, or fictional ones – like his best friend Terry Kitchen), through his marriages and his retreat from the world after his second wife’s death.
I wish there was more I could say about the book – but it’s pretty straightforward and it lacks the kick and the fantasy twists of Mother Night or Slaughterhouse (these being the only other 2 novels by him I’ve read so far). While Rabo’s history as an artist is odd and funny – culminating with the disintegration of all his paintings because of the bad materials used, the great reveal of his last photographic painting – his return to his illustrator roots and seemingly the only work in which he manages to pour his soul, left me somewhat indifferent. I don’t really think that the „mystery” of the potato barn was meant to be the central point of the novel (despite the title) but it was still unsurprising and a bit disappointing. Circe, as a character, is powerful – perhaps more powerful than Rabo himself – and, with her complete disregard for others’ feelings or opinions she manages to shake up the old man out of his routine and to bring life back to a dieing house. Considering her influence, her name is certainly not randomly chosen.