This novel is a quiet meditation on how difficult it is to part with a world too beautiful to reconcile with the inevitability of death . This description hints of sadness and sounds not at all like a ‘good summer read’. However, the slow thoughtful pace of this short novel (more of a novella) creates a mood that is dreamlike and serene. It is the ideal book for a summer break when the weather allows reading in the shade of a leafy tree (my favourite). After all, it is on those warm summer days that indolence becomes a virtue and is thus the best time to appreciate the pleasure of doing nothing but enjoying a good book.
The story centres around Lydia, the older sister by seven years of the American painter, Mary Cassatt. She is dying of Bright’s disease, an illness that slowly destroys the kidneys and for which there is no cure at this time, the late 1870’s. The setting is Paris and its environs as Mary is beginning to mature as an artist and is being mentored by the well-established impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. Lydia and Mary are living together with their parents in an apartment close to Place Pigalle and Mary’s studio in the 9ème arrondissement. The sisters share a similar sensibility with respect to art and nature and can often read each others thoughts. In this novel there is a progression towards acceptance on Lydia’s part that she is dying without having fulfilled many of her dreams and ambitions. Mary is overwhelmed with the idea of losing Lydia and as a means of coping with this looming eventuality begins work on a number of paintings with Lydia seated as her subject. This is the structure upon which the novel is built; five paintings of Lydia, like five pillars holding up the novel, like the entrance to a grand house.
This book is as lovely to touch and to look at as it is to read because of the five, small bookplates reproducing Mary’s pastel coloured paintings of Lydia scattered throughout. The light in these paintings is warm, clear and joyous, much influenced by Mary’s impressionist contemporaries. They represent a celebration of Lydia’s life. The use of paintings as an inspiration for a work of fiction is not a new device and there are a few examples in some of Fiction Quest’s earlier blogs. I’m thinking of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, even, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. The dust jacket of my copy of this book has a comment by Tracy Chevalier who wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, based on a painting by the Dutch artist, Vermeer. So not a unique innovation this, but the structure is particularly well done as in Lydia’s voice the author imagines how her sister puts together each painting while reflecting on the transformation that occurs through the lens of the artist’s vision. Thus, Lydia regards herself as being, “as plain as bread”, however, in the five portraits painted by her sister she is luminous, rosy, almost golden, a transference of the emotion from the mind of the artist to the canvas. In her sister’s eyes Lydia is beautiful while, reading a newspaper, sipping tea, even while holding the reigns of a horse and carriage.
To write such a solid and thoughtful story the author would have had to study these five paintings very closely in their intimate detail to credibly match the imagining part of the story-telling with the non-fictional part, that is the biography. I admired the work she put into it and went back to read certain passages just to see how this was done. I think an aspiring writer could learn a great deal about the construction of a novel from how this book is put together while the ‘common reader’ like myself, might just get carried away as one would by a lyrical poem or a piece of music… truly.