Paris is burning and Rena Greenblat has averted her eyes, and more importantly, her camera. While social unrest heats up the city that she lives and loves in, she refuses to return to Paris to do what she does best—hold up a photographic mirror to show the participants where their hot spots are located.
Rena is on a tour of Florence with her elderly father and her stepmother. Her Dutch-Canadian stepmother is underwhelmed. Her dad, pretending that he is stronger than he is, seems absent from the trip. Her co-worker and lover Aziz calls repeatedly for her to return home and photograph the riots in Paris. At first she does not understand the magnitude of the event, and later she makes the decision not to return, and to give up her job, as a catastrophe of a more personal nature unwinds in Italy.
The story is told mostly in Rena’s head, with brief glimpses of the streets of Florence. Much of her relationship with her father is revealed through her flashbacks to her childhood in Montreal. The distant mother is a lawyer representing women who are vulnerable to abuse, yet fails to see the abuse that her son inflicts on his sister. The child-like father treats his daughter as if they were friends: dropping acid with her, and taking a trip with a teenaged Rena and her adult lover—a double date including his much younger mistress.
Rena tells us at the beginning that she is “an ultrasensitive film,” capable of “capturing invisible reality, capturing heat”: like the infrared emulsion that responds to what “I cherish more than anything else, what I have always longed for, what I lacked most as a child—heat.”
This intensely written book is a sexual and emotional fire bomb embedded in a past that makes the Paris riots seem pastoral. Aside from those flashbacks, Rena is revealed mostly through her conversations with her alter-ego, Subra (Arbus mirror-imaged, an homage to the great photographer Diane Arbus). However, Subra is a rather flat make-believe friend, who doesn’t seem to care for or understand Rena. This woman in search of human warmth is chilled by the lack of intimacy in her life, and her want runs like an ache through the story. The book is beautiful and intricate, but a life mapped by traces of the heat of others in the end leaves both the protagonist and the reader out in the cold.