At her San Francisco art school, Joey enrolls in a film elective that requires her to complete what seems like a straightforward assignment: create a self-portrait. Joey inexplicably decides to remake Wes Anderson's Rushmore despite having never seen the movie. The assignment hangs over her as she struggles to exist in a well-heeled world that is hugely different from any she has known.
This cramped time frame lends the novel a richly claustrophobic atmosphere ... Joey will be relatable to readers who’ve visited art galleries and felt too afraid to ask whether the fire extinguisher is part of the exhibit or just a random object in the building ... Martin excels at seeing beauty in the mundane ... What makes Joey’s journey immensely readable is Martin’s obvious empathy for her protagonist and for the act of creation.
The book’s charms are also its nuisances; loving this book depends on one’s tolerance for spending 350 pages with an aimless 20-something art school dilettante. Joey’s upbringing hasn’t allowed for the luxury of self-development, so at times it was frustrating to inhabit the mind of a character with little sense of self, but her humor and wide-eyed disposition help carry the plot. Reading this book mimics the conundrum of 'wasting' your youth: It’s fun in the moment, but when you look back and wonder if you could’ve been doing something more significant, you realize it might have been precisely what you needed ... It’s the larger feminist question ungirding these pages that gives the book its weight: What do women owe their families? And what happens when they cut those ties to become artists? ... Even though Joey doesn’t end up making any great art, her path is a reminder that pursuing one’s vision of an artistic life is its own reward, and a messy personal life is often part and parcel of the art journey.
You could toss off a description of the book as 'the portrait of the artist as a young woman,' but life is short and that’s awfully reductive. Martin’s book is too complicated, too messy, too specifically entangled with the sheer impossibility of art for art’s sake under capitalism, for that kind of catalog copy to apply ... Readers might find something of an even more youthful Sally Rooney in these things. But their patience will be tested ... It’s a feather in Martin’s cap that her humor and nuance keep the reader going ... There is more to this 'portrait of the artist' than meets the eye, luckily. Superseding the struggle to complete a project premised on the unknown is the struggle simply to survive ... A direct rebuttal to the notion that novelists must ignore precarity if they want to be marketable ... Joey’s story unfolds through short vignettes. Some pages are only a few lines long. Others include lists and venn diagrams ... If Martin has set out to complete a 'self-portrait' of what it means to be a young person today in graduate school with artistic aspirations, she has done so.