Book of the month
MARI COATES lives in San Francisco, where, before joining University of California Press as a senior editor, she was an arts writer and theater critic. Her regular column appeared in the SF Weekly with additional profiles and features appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Monthly, Advocate, and other news outlets. Her stories have been published in the literary journals HLLQ and Eclipse, and she is grateful for residencies at I-Park, Ragdale, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods, which allowed her to develop and complete The Pelton Papers. She holds degrees from Connecticut College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Find her online at


The Pelton Papers: A Novel is Bookclubz' Book of the Month.

Use these discussion questions to guide your next meeting.


It is 1961 and the artist Agnes Pelton, nearly eighty, is close to death. Surrounded by a few of her cherished paintings and the boxes that contain her memorabilia—her papers—she pours out her story and shares her secrets at last.

Born into a family ruined by the famous Beecher-Tilton scandal, Agnes’s life is complicated by poor health and intense shyness as she grows up with her mother and grandmother in a darkly draped Brooklyn house. Always artistic, Agnes finds her escape at the Pratt Institute, studying with Arthur Wesley Dow, and from there embarks on a lifelong quest to develop her own style of abstract art. Success comes early when she exhibits in the famous Armory Show of 1913, after which she is befriended by Mabel Dodge and mentored by another Manhattan socialite with whom she falls into unrequited love. She suffers defeats and heartbreak, travels to Italy, New Mexico, Hawaii, and California, and finally arrives in the desert town of Cathedral City, near Palm Springs. Here she settles into a sheltered and contemplative life, painting the vivid abstracts that are her joy and her reason for being. 


Before reading this book, had you ever heard of Agnes Pelton or seen her art? What did you think of it? Do you think she was ahead of her time?

We learn that as a child Agnes was moved from the “old world” to the “new,” from Europe to America. But in 1888, how was the Europe they left different from the Brooklyn they found?

What role does religion play in this novel? How did it affect Agnes? Her mother? Her grandmother? How do we see it play out over the three generations?


The Pelton Papers: A Novel

“...quietly moving...”️The New York Times Book Review


"Coates’ first novel, a remarkable imagining of modernist artist Agnes Pelton’s life, with layered focus on her personal and professional growth in New York and the Southwest, is an intriguing combination of historical fiction and biography....deeply moving....A meditative and memorable story of one artist's complex journey."—Booklist


"Coates’s stirring debut imagines the life of painter Agnes Pelton....[and] brilliantly captures the creative eye of an unassuming, uniquely talented artist."—Publishers Weekly


“Coates’ thoroughly researched novel…succeeds beautifully at recreating the emotional life of this once-obscure artist, whose legacy has lately become the subject of renewed interest….The author also describes the artist’s unique spiritual journey and the inspiration for her later, abstract works in vivid prose that’s worthy of the artist. An in-depth, highly personal portrait of a remarkable talent.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review


“In The Pelton Papers the wonderfully gifted Mari Coates recreates in gorgeous detail both Agnes Pelton’s work and the life that led to that work. Reading these mesmerizing pages, I felt that I understood all over again the hardships and the joy of making art. From first to last Pelton is on a journey of the soul and we, her lucky readers, are privileged to accompany her on that journey of darkness and radiance. A truly marvelous debut.”—Margot Livesey, author of Mercury and The Flight of Gemma Hardy


Bronze Winner, Independent Publisher Book Award in Historical Fiction


This Book of the Month is sponsored in partnership with Caitlin Hamilton Marketing.