Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

Art, gender, love and friendship are all under consideration in this novel of twisted relationships in the 1970s L.A. art scene.

Heidi Sopinka’s Utopia opens at a party with the first-person perspective of Romy, a performance artist, directly addressing her months-old daughter. The evening ends with an unexplained tragedy, and from there the novel jumps forward some months to follow a young woman named Paz, who is now raising Romy’s baby and is married to Romy’s husband, Billy. It is 1978, and Paz, Billy and all their friends are steeped in the Los Angeles art scene, where sex, drugs and free expression are soured by competition, infighting and wildly different rules for male and female artists. Paz attends women’s groups and wishes for a freer life for herself, but many women see her as having taken over Romy’s life in decidedly unfeminist fashion. Romy, the more successful and established artist, casts a long shadow; Paz loves Billy but is perhaps more in love with Romy, whose life and art obsess her. Caring for Romy’s baby, lost in reading Romy’s journals, Paz finds herself in something of a love triangle with a ghost, and begins to lose grasp of her own life and art. And then a postcard arrives, apparently from Romy. It is labeled “disappearance piece.”

Utopia cleverly investigates layers of social issues: feminism and its intersections with race and class; gender roles in life and in art; women’s relationships; the artist’s relationship to commerce and social justice. The central narrative belongs to Paz, but that narrative is always shadowed by Romy, and intermingled with Romy’s voice via her journal entries. “Everything Romy said assumed importance. She lived her life so strongly.” The two women and all they have in common (including an art-star husband and a baby) offer plenty of room to examine questions about art and gender. Paz’s best friend Essa (also an artist and mother) is another powerful character and model for Paz to chart her own path. They are surrounded by other women of the art scene and feminist groups; the novel is populated by strong women questioning norms.

Sopinka (The Dictionary of Animal Languages) excels in characterization and the evocation of the power of creation. In pursuing her predecessor’s mysterious end, Paz must put herself in real danger and explore the very edges of not only art but existence. “She’s driving a speed addict’s car in an inside-out shirt, on painkillers, with a hand wrapped in gauze, on her way to find her husband’s dead ex-wife. If she concentrates hard enough, these things will snap into a logical pattern.” By the time the perspective shifts to that of a third woman near the novel’s conclusion, Utopia has asked that the reader journey through some weighty questions–but all will be rewarded.


This review originally ran in the August 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 matches.

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