2/10/14 BOOK REVIEW: COBALT BLUE BY PEGGY PAYNE
Cobalt Blue is a novel about sex, and then it’s not. If you’re looking for steamy sex scenes, you’ll find them here, but you’ll also find much more in the struggles of Andie Branson, a 38-year-old artist who is suddenly caught up in a puzzling chaos of inspiration and desire. Frustrated that her career is floundering (her most recent job includes the lowly work of napkin design), Andie’s interest in creating art is waning, so she’s surprised when an unexpected surge of pleasure grows into an urgent passion to paint. And so the journey begins.
At her studio in Pinehurst, North Carolina, Andie is driven to develop an old sketch into a taut yellow umbrella, which is a portion of what she visualized during the pleasure surge. As she paints, she’s gripped with an unfamiliar energy, a prickle rising in jerky motion “as if parts of her were coming loose inside.” Although she’s perplexed by this new arousal, wondering if it’s what people mean by “mystical,” Andie also marvels at the electricity of the painting. It’s the achievement she’s sought for years.
Andie’s convinced she’s starting a new level in her art, so what seems to be a random injury to her wrist later in the day is particularly disturbing. Or maybe it isn’t so random. While reaching inside a partially open car window to pet a dog, Andie twists her wrist and at the same time sees the reflection of her face on the dog’s head, “a wolf with the face of a woman,” the lips snarling.
From that point on, events in Andie’s life go terribly wrong. Against her better judgment, she agrees to paint a portrait of a racist senator whose policies she deplores. She allows herself to be enticed into a sex-filled boat trip with a stranger, and charges him one thousand dollars a day for her company. She seduces an old friend. What started as inspired painting is now driving her in directions she doesn’t want to go. And still she continues to improve the luminescent painting of the umbrella.
Frightened by her behavior, Andie seeks counsel from a therapist, who draws out of her the idea that the sex is leading to an expansion of her concept of self, but she has to control it, which she can’t. Her search for understanding and control takes her down memories of relationships past and present, including her strong attachment to her parents. And to centers of peace, such as the Episcopal church of her youth and a friend’s Quaker meeting. But not until she leafs through the senator’s book on meditation does she find a concept that resonates—the coiled energy called kundalini.
According to the meditation book, kundalini is “the energy of self-actualization” that “when awakened, is said to travel up through the chakras to the crown of the head.” Andie is familiar with different understandings of energy and spirituality from her mother, but she’s not familiar with kundalini. Where does it come from? What does it do? Can it be controlled? These questions send Andie on a deeper journey that winds through more research, her painting, and her commitment to make a portrait of the senator. Eventually, the journey leads her to New Orleans—the center of mystery and the occult—with the senator’s portrait as contraband.
Cobalt Blue provides a provocative look at an aspect of spirituality little known to most people and rarely explored in fiction. It opens avenues of thought about the struggle for true self that resonate with fears and desires in all of us. Is it possible to be the best of whoever you are and to control your destiny? If so, how? Going along with Andie in her search for answers to these questions is an enlightening and turbulent ride.
Next month Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue, will answer my questions about her interest in spirituality, the role of kundalini in her novel, her reasons for choosing Andie as the protagonist to explore its meaning, and other aspects of her novel. You won’t want to miss what she has to say on March 10.