Each of the three stories in this collection is based on a different work by Matisse. Writing about art is always tricky, and never seems to do the work justice, and here is no different. Byatt throws up lists of numerous colors--see the "cadmium" and "lemon" and "scarlet" and "cardinal red" above--which never cohere into a successful visual object, instead remaining as half-realized as the black-and-white reproductions that preface each story.
But perhaps that's how it is meant to be; each story in some way shows us the impossibility of realizing the optimism and joy that embodied Matisse's work. The first story, "Medusa's Ankles," is narrated by a woman grappling with her own aging appearance at her salon, where one of Matisse's nudes hangs, emblematic of a very different kind of beauty than the models who appear in the surrounding posters, but unlike the narrator, immune to change and decline. The second, "Art Work," is about a family of frustrated artists who are shocked when their working-class maid finds success as a sculptor, knitting masterworks together from the clothes they gave her, thinking of them as hand-me-downs. Each of these stories is about the gap between the way we are and the we are seen or the way we want to be seen.
The best of the stories, though, is the last, "The Chinese Lobster." The narrator is a college's dean of women students, meeting a colleague at a Chinese restaurant to discuss sexual harassment charges made against him. The student--who Byatt pointedly makes the subject of discussion, rather than a character with any agency--is neurotic and deeply troubled, and her thesis centers around a misguided perception that Matisse's work objectifies and belittles women. She applies her thesis to a project smearing feces on reproductions of his work. But the professor, an expert on Matisse, is almost comically villainous in his contempt for the student.
What seems at first to be a straightforward story about gender conflict becomes something different, though, when the narrator and the professor connect over a mutual understanding of Matisse:
Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of his movement, in himself, or herself, or more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk my run smoothly onwards without a ripple or a quiver.
The professor notes that Matisse claimed his art was designed to "please and be comfortable," which, paradoxically, is what makes the work so radical. Matisse's effusions of color are only sensible, only fruitful, when placed next to le porte noir, the black door. The student is bereft, suicidal, but the tragedy is only compounded by her rejection of something that might ameliorate, even a little, the endemic misery of being. "The Chinese Lobster" remains a story about a man's piggish inability to sympathize with one woman, but in his sympathy with another, the narrator, Byatt reveals something deeper and wiser.