San Francisco Chronicle

According to the tenets of Buddhism, life is suffering, and suffering arises inexorably from desire, from the act of wanting. In Nina Schuyler's meditative first novel, "The Painting," the interplay between want and need not only creates the thematic backbone of the book but also drives the story itself. Each of her characters is afflicted with his or her own particular form of suffering, and each, in turn, is likewise afflicted with the hope of bringing that suffering to an end.

"The Painting" moves back and forth between two disparate story lines connected, somewhat flimsily, by a single painting. Although the painting fails to link the separate plots beyond a superficial connection, and the breadth of Schuyler's talent would seem capable of more, she does deliver two richly imagined worlds. What does bring the stories into alignment and makes them resonate with satisfying counterpoint are the struggles of the characters, their discontent within their respective, shattering worlds.

The story that opens the novel follows Ayoshi, a young painter dissatisfied with her arranged marriage. It takes place during the Meiji restoration when Japan, after centuries of closed borders, is enduring a forced Westernization at the hands of its ruling elite. The government has outlawed the practice of Zen Buddhism, favoring instead the "pure" Japanese religion of Shintoism, and its tactics in suppressing Buddhism are efficiently brutal. Ayoshi's husband, Hayashi, a potter, finds himself torn between the promising financial returns of the Western market and his deep appreciation of the Buddhist faith. Ayoshi, meanwhile, is lost to him, stuck in her memories of a former lover and a former life. She inhabits this past directly through her artwork, finding solace by hiding in what was once hers. It is her painting of her former lover that bridges the two stories.

The other story, set during the Franco-Prussian War, concerns Natalia, the illegitimate daughter of a well-heeled Parisian. Her brother, Pierre, is a businessman whose support of the war is directly attributable to its black market prices, and thus to the fattening of his wallet. Natalia helps a young Danish soldier named Jorgen, who has lost his leg defending France, find work in her brother's business.

Much of this story revolves around Jorgen's recovering from his war experience and his growing affection for Natalia, but Natalia's disgust with Pierre's greed and her innocent faith in the world's potential provide the more stirring conflict. The historical backdrop of both story lines is rooted in the violent degeneration of the traditional worlds in which both women live. This dismantling is mirrored in their personal lives as they struggle to make a space for themselves in an increasingly fraying social fabric. Schuyler seems equally comfortable in both backdrops, and her ability in imagining both Natalia and Ayoshi with such skill allows the turbulence of 19th century France and Japan to become more than a snapshot of political upheaval. Instead, we witness the women's inner worlds come undone.

To burden the book with the moniker of a "feminist novel" would be reductive. But the portrait the book paints of its two heroines is an empowering one. Both women live under the hard customs of patriarchal societies, and both find themselves unfulfilled within the strict confines of their respective worlds. Ayoshi is an artist more than she could ever be a wife, and Natalia refuses the hand of numerous suitors, choosing instead to join the war effort and fight for the freedom of France.

Thankfully, Schuyler is not interested in polemics. In fact, what makes her characters inspiring is the doubt that they carry about their decisions. They wrestle with their own refusals to be pigeonholed. They struggle most deeply with understanding what they actually want. Their bravery, in effect, arises not from courage so much as from dissatisfaction. They fight because they don't know what else to do.

"The Painting," which owes much of its beauty to its sentences, opens with a haiku by Basho, "Clouds come from time to time -- and bring to men a chance to rest from looking at the moon." It is a fitting epigraph, not simply because the book chooses the storm clouds of social unrest as its setting but also because its central characters refuse to relinquish hope despite the onslaught of history. Instead, they grapple with their ambivalence, believing that somehow and at some point, they'll find an answer.

Schuyler most likely agrees with the Zen monks that life is suffering, but she refuses to deprecate human desire.