Stella is an expatriate New Zealander — artist, poet, author of short stories, and one single novel. She keeps a book stall in Camden Yard, London, where she earns her living selling secondhand books. Stella is a daydreamer, and idealist whose politics are just barely right of Marx. She is a “Green,” a staunch environmentalist. She lives with a handful of like minded young people, all artists, actors, musicians, activists in search of “the truth.” She has moved to London because she sees for herself a career as a great author of important literary works, and New Zealand is just too small to contain her search for that universal truth.
One day, in springtime, a man wanders into her small shop. A man of obvious breeding and a higher social station than the usual collection of Bohemians, hippies, yuppies, and punks who usually haunt Camden Market. When Stella looks up from her pricing of books a second time, the man is staring intently at her and holding a book on the early works of Cézanne. Stella is not so much a against capitalism as to pass up a joke about overcharging him. Soon, Mr. Prain is showing up every Saturday and they fall into an easy conversation about literature, art exhibits, politics, and various other things that passing acquaintances would discuss.
After a few months, Mr. Prain shows up at Stella’s stall one day and she is working on one of her poems. Upon request, Stella shows it to him and Mr. Prain reveals that he is the managing director of Coyman’s, England’s largest independent publishing house. Mr. Prain ask Stella whether she has written other things, at which point she admits her literary aspirations. Mr. Prain asks if he might read her work. The next weekend, she boxes up what she considers her best efforts and gives them to Prain. After reading them, he asks her around to tea to discuss her writing. ‘Around’ being a train trip north, near Oxford, to his his opulent country estate.
Stella is naturally giddy at the prospect of her art reaching the hands of one of the country’s most important publishers. She is also dreading the appointment for the same reasons. Does she stack up, or has she been deluding herself? Are Prain’s motives literary or romantic?
At Prain’s mansion, the conversations of the title take place. We hear Prain’s capitalistic approach to publishing, which, profit driven, are also very pragmatic and realistic. We also explore Stella’s motivations as an artist. Her artist’s confidence and what she might trade for the chance to create and create freely. The two discuss the questions: “what is the purpose of art?”; “should art be profitable?”; should it make money and who does it belong to?” They also explore Stella’s psyche and how she views herself as an artist and a women.
The story of Joan Taylor’s Conversations With Mr. Prain is erotically charged without being an erotic novel. Shortly after Stella’s arrival, Prain reveals a nude photograph of Stella taken by a famous photographer. Stella has worked as a “life” model for serious painters, photographers and art classes. Prain was drawn to the photo for what it represented to him as the ideal female form. It also has elements of a mystery, without being a mystery. Does Prain’s interest in Stella and his admiration of the photo objectify Stella as a woman, or is he drawn to her romantically and on a personal level because of it? Or, yet more, is she really a writer worth discovering?
Perhaps the most overlooked, but interesting, aspect of the plot and the story is that there are really only four characters in the book, outside of the teenage niece and nephew who were Prain’s reason for visiting the book stall in the first place.
Upon arrival at Prain’s estate, Stella meets Monique, Prain’s French housekeeper, who is not all she seems at first glance. The fourth person is Prain’s grumpy gardener. These two characters serve the purpose of revealing aspects of Prain’s personality and history. Since the story is told as a first person narrative, these characters prove necessary, but they are more than just literary devices. Is there a sexual relationship between Prain and Monique? How does Prain react and inter act with the “lower social classes”; the gardener?
The plot is really an exploration of the publishing world, the artistic mindset and motives, the class differences that still exist in England, and a sort of oddball love story. Or hate story, perhaps. How much of one’s soul as a person would they trade for their art?
The plot is intricate. The story moves in and out of Stella’s imagination as she congers, in her artists brain, different strategies and motives she might attribute to Prain. We visit Stella both as an artist and a women and as she explores her own artistic values and personal motives and how those mesh with Prain’s.
First ignored, when published in 2006, by the critics, what Taylor has crafted here is at least a minor classic. Perhaps a major classic. Parallels will be drawn with John Fowles works, particularly “The Magus” but there is nothing of the supernatural here. Nothing of the deep drama with Gothic touches. Instead, the story is told much more directly, if intricately. Only Stella’s artistic daydreaming and explorations of her own worth makes the novel more than a straight narrative. Taylor writes in an original and engaging way and has a finely crafted plot that is very easy to be absorbed into. Conversations With Mr. Prain is very modern while still remaining familiar. The author knows her characters well, even though they are extremes on a scale and her use of literary symbolic metaphor is marvelous. This is a work told on many levels, both in its crafting and its subject matter, and a tale that the reader will revisit again and again and find new elements of attractions.