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Janet Fitch - Paint It Black

“I see a red door and I want it painted black…No colours anymore I want them to turn black” - The Rolling Stones

Book Review

(*Spoiler alert!*)

Paint It Black is a very intricate and captivating novel that keeps you glued to the book right from the start. Josie Tyrell is the main character in the book that lives a very open and care free lifestyle. Michael Faraday was Josie’s boyfriend, who dies by suicide right at the beginning of the novel. Because of the tragic event, Michaels mother Meredith blames Josie for the death of her son because she believes Josie was unfit for him. Michael Faraday came from a very wealthy and talented family. He dropped out of Harvard to paint in L.A and met Josie who became the love of his short life. To Meredith, Josie was girl with a bad reputation and a punk rebellious look about her… unfit for Michael.

When Michael Faraday dies, Josie struggles heavily with her loss; she becomes depressed and devastated because the two of them were deeply in love. Josie also has to deal with Meredith because she often called to blame the suicide on her and mostly to release her anger. Throughout their arguments it becomes clear that Josie and Meredith have a need and a want to talk to each other but because the both of them are so stubborn it’s not until months after that Josie shows up at Meredith’s door on Christmas night, with nowhere to go. It’s this moment in that their relationship begins, as odd as it may be.

As Josie and Meredith get to know each other better and as their relationship gets stronger, they discover some shocking things about Michaels past. Meredith is dumbfounded by the fact that Michael cooked and lived a lifestyle opposite of the one he grew up with and Josie believes that everything about Michael was a complete lie. But worst of all Josie is also convinced that Michael never had loved her and began doubting their entire relationship. Was Michael living two completely separate lives?

Josie who was now living with Meredith had the chance to truly understand Michael better by experiencing the life he had had with Meredith. So far, Meredith had taken Josie in and wrapped her up with love and comfort. She began treating Josie as if she were Michael, she spoils her completely and Josie allows her to do so because she never experienced a life so full of riches and care.

As Josie becomes even more comfortable living with Meredith, she starts to explore the house a little better. Josie soon comes across a photo album that makes Josie doubt Michael and hers love even more. Josie sees Michael participating in so many activities he claimed he had hated, such as the sports and many other things. But there was one particular photograph that stood out to her… one that proves Michael and Meredith’s relationship was a lot closer than she thought it to be. Josie wonders how she went on so long without truly realizing Michael had lived two completely different lives. If they loved each other so much, why couldn’t he trust her?

It wasn’t until Josie gets the treatment Michael had had with Meredith that she starts to understand the life that Michael had lived and the reasons behind his actions. She now knows what it was like to be Michael and why he needed to get away. Tragedy was a theme that was consistent throughout, and the image of death is strongly noticed throughout the entire novel. The language of death ironically shows the language of life…which shows Josie the language of life and how to truly live. Meredith had made the wrong decisions all along and Josie finally makes the right one, by leaving Meredith behind and continues on her journey of discovering Michael.

Josie decides that she will visit the place that Michael had died. It is at this particular spot that she truly understands Michael. A girl at the location had found the journal that belonged to Michael before he had killed himself and handed it to Josie. It is in this journal that she finds out he had truly loved her and she begins to accept his death. The dream of the true world was also a large part of Michael and Josie’s life, because it was what they tried to achieve. (Sadly enough the true world was when they were happy and in love, and it was lost when Michael had given up). But, Josie’s acceptance of Michael's death was the final thing she needed to do to truly cope with the situation, and once that was achieved a new start was just beginning…

Author Bio

Janet Fitch is most famously known as the author of the Oprah's Book Club novel White Oleander, which became a film in 2002. She is a graduate of Reed College, located in Portland, Oregon.

Janet Fitch was born in Los Angeles, a third-generation native, and grew up in a family of voracious readers. As an undergraduate at Reed College, Fitch had decided to become an historian, attracted to its powerful narratives, the scope of events, the colossal personalities, and the potency and breadth of its themes. But when she won a student exchange to Keele University in England, where her passion for Russian history led her, she awoke in the middle of the night on her twenty-first birthday with the revelation she wanted to write fiction.

Janet Fitch is a faculty member in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she teaches fiction.

Some of her favorite authors include Fyodor Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe.

Her third novel, Paint It Black, named after the Rolling Stones song of the same name, was published in September, 2006.

Why did you choose to name the novel Paint it Black?

Although it's an eighties punk rock novel, the title resonated with certain kind of grief, not the 'she walks the hills in a long white veil' type, not picturesque, but a black, destructive, furious grief.


Why did you choose to ‘kill off’ Michael at the beginning of the story?

Because he would dominate the story if he were alive. It would be his story, and I'm much more interested in the people left holding the bag, than in glorifying the people who make these grand dramatic gestures. Most of us are the ones left behind, who have to clean up after some else's decision. How to keep living, that's what I'm interested in.

I noticed that throughout the entire novel, you really kept Michael’s presence alive by using a lot of “Michael terms”. Josie often spoke as Michael would have and reminisced about the two of them together. This gave the readers a sense of him truly to have been there. Was that your intention, to keep his character ‘alive’ throughout the book?

Yes, absolutely. Paint It Black was always a three character drama--really, a love triangle. Michael is very much alive for both Josie and his mother. The fact that he's dead hardly matters. Someone can be dead for years and still be a major factor in your life.

In the suicide note that Michael had left Josie, he questions their love. Why would he do that?

Because when you're in a terrible depression, you can't remember what love felt like, you can't remember what happiness felt like. You know you felt it, but it seems very abstract and far away, as if it happened to someone else.

Josie is known to have a firecracker personality, and anything that upsets her triggers her into action. When Meredith had stolen all of her and Michael’s belongings, I was expecting Josie to take serious action. When Josie did nothing to try and get her things back, I felt such a loss. Why is it that you chose to let Josie do nothing about Meredith invading her privacy and robbing her blind?

I don't think Josie does nothing. I think creepy crawling Meredith's house, climbing the stairs, going into her room and entertaining murderous thoughts while standing next to her bed watching her sleep, creeped her out. It showed her something about herself that she didn't want to know about herself. That she was not so different from Meredith. So, emotionally, it was enough for Josie to show her she was there. She didn't need the actual stuff. She needed her power back. It wasn't ever about the stuff. It was the trespass, the "rape."

When Josie was learning more about Michael and his past, it was implied that Meredith might have sexually abused him. Is there a possibility that Michael was creating a new persona with Josie because had had suffered from a tragic event?

Yes. We all create personae for people we're romantically involved with, we only want to show them our best self, a romanticised self, in Michael's case with Josie, especially, he wanted to simplify himself for her, and he was ashamed at his love for his mother, his unhealthy ties to her. I don't think she actually out and out abused him, but using a child in that "little boyfriend" way is psychosexual abuse of a subtle, and frankly, pervasive kind. I think it became overt for a moment in St. Tropez, and this frightened Michael enough to send him to his father, to send him into a conventional school. The fact that in some ways he wanted this.

When Josie was acting as Elena in Jeremy’s film, was Josie creating a new persona because she had suffered from the tragic event of Michael committing suicide? Was Josie suffering from post traumatic stress disorder?

Absolutely! She was looking for other ways to be, another self to inhabit. A woman who might not have 'killed' Michael, or might not care as much as Josie did.

Josie had left the movie set where she played the role of Elena. If she had continued to play this role and have finished the film, would she have turned into Elena? Is this what the idea was progressing to, or your intent?

I think she was progressing this way. It was dangerous because she was not in control of it as an actor is, it was true psychological "acting out."


The way each character had appeared in the novel represented how involved they were with Josie or Michael. Michael’s father Cal had a very small part within the book just like he had a very small part in Michael’s life, and Pen always showed up for Josie whenever she needed help getting back on track. Was this done on purpose to emphasize each characters personality?

No, I work very much like music, just what kind of tones have to come in certain places. I feel it. The more I think about things the more wooden it gets, so I try just to stick with my feelings, keep it alive and real.

In both of your novels, White Oleander and Paint It Black, you have a pattern of having a very strong female figure who is talented, evil, brilliant and powerful. They are both the antagonists in the novels. Is there an inspiration or reason behind choosing such strong and distinct characters? Is there someone in your life that represents an Ingrid or a Meredith?

Generally, I think people aren't themselves evil. It's just their effect on other people that can be evil. I don't think many people think of themselves as evil, they think of themselves as right and justified in their actions. Meredith was doing the right thing from her point of view, setting standards of excellence, offering Michael a rich and elevated kind of life. I like writing older women who have gained a certain perspective in their lives, as a result of their own upbringings, and a certain measure of power through that--and then to see how that plays out against younger people under their influence, who in turn will influence others when they have their own power and strength. Antagonists should always be multifaceted and strong--otherwise there's no risk or impetus to grow.

In the journal Michael used before he committed suicide, there were many things within the journal that expressed psychotic symptoms, such as the mocking monk. Specifically, he wrote “I accept you demon”. Was Michael schizophrenic?

I don't think Michael was schizophrenic. I think he was depressed and his depression, his self-loathing, his self-doubts, were his demon.

The true world and real world was very distinct within the book. I loved the chapter with Lola, when she tells Josie that “she must believe”. Had Michael given up on finding the true world? Do you think when people are suicidal this is what happens?

Yes, I think that's exactly what happens. As with the question on love--when people are suicidal, they can't remember the things they believed in, the things they loved, the beautiful things of this world. It seems like a shadow, a dream. All the worse when you saw it once, when you loved it once. The bitterness of losing it--who said “the bitterest pain was happiness remembered in terrible times”.

What inspired you to write this novel?

I had a book that failed, and I was pretty depressed myself, and I came across a short story I'd always liked, a little gothic story about the girlfriend of a suicide who comes to his mother's house, where he had hung himself, and ends up becoming the boy for his mother. It suited my mood and it was only three characters, an intense little drama. I thought it was something I could do.


Any chance this will be made into a movie??

I'd love that.

Photo from book cover