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PALLADIO by Jonathan Dee

July 8, 2010

I love the ambition of this book. Although it’s far from perfect, it’s very smart, riding the line between reality and satire and asking a lot of smart questions along the way. And questions are always more important than answers.

The novel starts with two story threads: In the first, Molly Howe, a teenage girl in a small town has an affair with the father of the family for whom she regularly babysits. When the affair is revealed, she becomes a pariah and is shamed into running away. She ends up in Berkeley, where she lives in a house with her brother. In the second thread, John Wheelwright, an art director at a New York advertising agency is invited by one of the agency’s eccentric partners to join in a new venture in Charlottesville, Virginia—an experimental enterprise, part advertising agency, part thinktank, part artist collective. Palladio, as the new company is called, essentially re-imagines modern advertising model as a revival of the patronage system, with companies funding avant-garde art projects, placing no limitations or control on the work.

Without giving too much away, the two plotlines overlap in a well-structured story that shifts perspective and jumps around in time. It deals with family relationships, romantic relationships, business relationships, and the relationship between art and commerce. The personal relationships are deep and well thought out, although Dee spends a little too much time psycho-analyzing his characters. In the end, the personal relationships feel like they bog down the book a little. But the interesting part of this book, and the real crux of the story, is Palladio. Dee’s depiction of the ego and bombast of the advertising world is spot on. And although the idea that companies would blindly fund experimental art projects would have been slightly more absurd when this book was published in 2002, Dee was somewhat prescient as “content creation” is quickly coming into vogue. Which makes one question the true role of marketing, the nature of “message,” and the importance of meaning. All good questions.

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