The first novel in nearly a decade from Myla Goldberg, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Bee Season—a compelling and wholly original story about a female photographer grappling with ambition and motherhood, a balancing act familiar to women of every generation.
Feast Your Eyes, framed as the catalogue notes from a photography show at the Museum of Modern Art, tells the life story of Lillian Preston: “America’s Worst Mother, America’s Bravest Mother, America’s Worst Photographer, or America’s Greatest Photographer, depending on who was talking.” After discovering photography as a teenager through her high school’s photo club, Lillian rejects her parents’ expectations of college and marriage and moves to New York City in 1955. When a small gallery exhibits partially nude photographs of Lillian and her daughter Samantha, Lillian is arrested, thrust into the national spotlight, and targeted with an obscenity charge. Mother and daughter’s sudden notoriety changes the course of both of their lives and especially Lillian’s career as she continues a life-long quest for artistic legitimacy and recognition.
Narrated by Samantha, Feast Your Eyes reads as a collection of Samantha’s memories, interviews with Lillian’s friends and lovers, and excerpts from Lillian’s journals and letters—a collage of stories and impressions, together amounting to an astounding portrait of a mother and an artist dedicated, above all, to a vision of beauty, truth, and authenticity.
This reading group guide for Feast Your Eyes includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Feast Your Eyes, framed as a catalogue from a photography show at the Museum of Modern Art, tells the life story of Lillian Preston: “America’s Worst Mother, America’s Bravest Mother, America’s Worst Photographer, or America’s Greatest Photographer, depending on who was talking.” A singularly dedicated artist, Lillian flees suburban Cleveland, Ohio, leaving behind her disapproving parents, for New York City in the early 1950s. There, she spends the next two decades working assiduously on her photography—mostly street photography, though after she has a child out of wedlock, also pictures of her daughter.
When a small gallery exhibits “The Samantha Series,” photographs of Lillian’s partially naked child, Lillian is arrested, thrust into the national spotlight, and targeted with an obscenity charge. Mother and daughter’s sudden notoriety changes the course of both of their lives and especially Lillian’s career, as she stops showing her photography completely.
Narrated by Samantha, who rechristens herself Jane, Feast Your Eyes reads as a collection of Samantha’s memories, interviews with Lillian’s friends and lovers, and excerpts from Lillian’s letters—a collage of stories and impressions, together amounting to an astounding portrait of a mother and an artist dedicated, above all, to a vision of beauty, truth, and authenticity.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel itself is the catalogue from Lillian Preston’s photography exhibit at MoMA. What do we gain from this nontraditional narrative framing? Does it grant us better insight into the characters? The photography?
2. The catalogue begins: “Feast your eyes, America. Here she is: America’s Worst Mother, America’s Bravest Mother, America’s Worst Photographer, or America’s Greatest Photographer.” What does this proclamation reveal about the expectations of women as mothers and artists? How does it set the stage for what unfolds?
3. On page 32, it’s noted that Lillian’s portraits, which often featured nudity, “were a way for her to study what lay at the core of people.” How does this concept of nudity differ from that of a male artist depicting a nude woman? Can this be understood as the “female gaze”?
4. Lillian is often adamant that there is no connection between her nonautobiographical photographs and her life. Do you think this is possible? What do you think is the art/life connection?
5. How do Lillian’s precluded abortion, pregnancy, and Samantha’s eventual birth reflect the social and medical norms of the 1950s? What did it mean to choose to be a single mother in that era? Later in the book, when Jane chooses to get an abortion, the procedure has been legalized. How does Jane’s legal abortion experience differ from Lillian’s illegal one? In what ways is it the same?
6. Lillian moves with Ken from New York to Brooklyn Heights in 1956. Do you think Lillian’s photographs change as her New York setting changes? Can you discern a certain Manhattan era of her work? A Brooklyn era? How do we watch New York evolve over the years?
7. Why do you think Lillian is so resolute against having another child with Ken? How does Lillian’s choice to only have one child, Samantha, impact her life and work?
8. On page 150, Samantha writes: “Photographs have an annoying habit of corroding whatever real memories you have of a moment until the photo is all that’s left.” What is the relationship between memory and photography?
9. We are reintroduced to Lillian’s most infamous photograph Mommy is sick in the catalogue notes. What does it reveal about abortion in pre Roe v. Wade abortion? What does the controversy surrounding it reveal about women’s rights in the ’60s? Did knowing the backstory about the photo impact your understanding of it?
10. In response to the New York court case and the controversy, Samantha changes her name to Jane. In what other ways, was their mother-daughter relationship affected due to all the negative attention?
11. Years later, after abortion became legal, Mommy is sick becomes popular, inspiring punk rock songs and granting Samantha a sort of cultural cachet. Can you think of other examples of works of art leading culture and having political impact?
12. As she is dying, Lillian takes a series of portraits of herself tense with pain and then still. How do these photographs serve as a finale for her life’s work?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Look at the collected photos in Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, which caused controversy similar to Lillian’s because it included shots of the photographer’s nude children.
2. Read Diane Arbus:Revelations, a collection of photos, letters, and diaries, put together by her daughter, telling the story of the photographer’s life.
Myla Goldberg is the bestselling author of Feast Your Eyes, The False Friend, Wickett’s Remedy, and Bee Season, which was a New York Times Notable Book, winner of the Borders New Voices Prize, and a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the NYPL Young Lions award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover award. It was adapted to film and widely translated. In addition to her novels, she has written an essay collection, a children’s book, and short stories that have appeared in Harper’s. She teaches in the fiction programs at Sarah Lawrence and NYU and has been known to sing and play accordion and banjo in the Brooklyn art-punk band The Walking Hellos. She was also the subject of a song by The Decemberists, “Song for Myla Goldberg.” She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Jason Little and their two daughters.
“A daringly inventive parable of female creativity and motherhood." —O, the Oprah Magazine
“Inventive ... Goldberg offers a searching consideration of the way that the identities and perceptions of a female artist shift over time." —The New Yorker
“Wrenchingly intimate…Goldberg’s passionate depiction of Lillian rings heartbreakingly true at a moment when discussions of emotional labor dominate certain sectors of the media and writers like Kim Brooks and Claire Vaye Watkins write viral essays contemplating whether it is truly possible to be both an artist and a mother.” —Joanna Rakoff, The New York Times
“Lively and vivid… Goldberg expertly differentiates the voices of [her characters] … fascinating.” —Chris Hewitt, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“With cleverness and imagination, vivid historical detail and great heart, this catalog tells the story of Lillian's life…Lillian Preston also represents an exciting turn of events in the career of her creator, Myla Goldberg, [who] has reemerged with a stunning success, what feels like the book she was always meant to write...Through its intense focus on a series of photographs, a group of quirky characters and a particular time in our cultural history, Feast Your Eyes becomes a universal and profound story of love and loss.” —Marion Winik, Newsday
“If you’re stuck in a reading rut, Feast Your Eyes will snap you right out of it.” —Elizabeth Entenman, HelloGiggles
“Like a photograph that captures the inner light of its subject, Feast Your Eyes catches such moments on the page, illuminating the power of both beauty and heartbreak. Goldberg unsparingly reveals a driven artist whose propulsive talent is also her Achilles’ heel.” —BookPage
"The action in Feast Your Eyes unfurls entirely in program notes for a retrospective of Lillian's work in the Modern Museum of Art — expect a mix of letters, analysis of Lillian's photographs, and commentary from Samantha, who's curating the exhibit. Through this collage comes a gripping portrait of Lillian: a fierce mother, a fierce artist, and a woman crucified for both." —Refinery 29
“A mother-daughter story, an art-monster story, and an exciting structural gambit.” —Lit Hub
“From Bee Season (2000) onward, Goldberg has portrayed girls and young women with fluent sensitivity. In her brilliantly structured fourth novel, she revisits the theme again, in the story of photographer Lillian Preston, who, chronically shy yet determined, flees Cleveland for New York in 1953 at 17 and becomes an accidental single mother at 19… This is a novel of infinite depth, of caring authenticity both intimate and societal, of mothers and daughters, art and pain, and transcendent love.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist, STARRED
“A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.” —Kirkus Reviews, STARRED
“This story is feminist at its core ... A strong book club pick." —Library Journal
“Goldberg evocatively profiles a brilliant woman whose identities—as woman, artist, and mother—are inseparable from one another… a memorable portrait of one artist’s life.” —Publishers Weekly
“Reading Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes reminded me of other unlikely adventure stories, like Hillary’s summit of the Himalayas, or Shackleton’s return from Antarctica. Only here the human constraints are still more challenging: making art as a single mother in a twentieth century dominated, and distorted, by men. This is an unflinching, deeply moving portrait of the artist, and a bravura performance in and of itself. I loved this book.” —Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour