The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper
I have read and enjoyed several of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, beginning with Little Women. When she was 28, May Alcott became known as frivolous Amy March when her sister Louisa’s book became a bestseller. May’s illustrations for Little Women were criticized as amateurish. Stung, May began to focus on her art, taking classes in Boston and travelling to Europe to study, funded by Louisa, who supported the whole family. The sisters clashed frequently, especially over who would take care of their parents and widowed sister. Both women faced the challenge of making money or making art. May sold copies of J.W.S. Turner watercolor paintings, but longed to do more. Louisa didn’t want to keep writing children’s books, but they were very successful. Not nearly as much is known about May’s life, so the author, a debut novelist, had more leeway to write about her life as an artist in Europe, and to imagine the letters exchanged between the sisters, which seem real. Mary Cassatt became a friend to May as well as a famous artist, but it was never easy for Victorian era women artists, especially after they married. May especially struggled with knowing when she was a real artist, even after she had a painting exhibited at the Salon in Paris. When she found love in Europe, more conflicts arose, especially with sister Louisa. In the end, May leaves Louisa her best creation, and leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Louisa May Alcott fans will enjoy this book, as well as historical fiction readers, and readers of Susan Vreeland’s novels.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
In a life full of disappointments, Christina Olson both enjoys the coastal Maine farmhouse she shares with her parents, one of her brothers, and her cats, and longs to be free of the house and her life. In her 40s, she meets young painter Andrew Wyeth, who is engaged to her young friend Betsy, and they open up her world. Wyeth loves painting the old farmhouse and its surroundings, and sees Christina as no one else does. An illness as a young girl leaves Christina with shaky balance and weak legs, but she keeps house for her family after leaving school early, although she could have trained to be a teacher. At 20, Christina has a romance with a handsome summer visitor, but it too ends in disappointment. A few friends, sisters-in-law, clambakes, picnics, berry picking and other joys of summer enliven her life, along with the poems of Emily Dickinson, but the winters in a drafty house without electricity or a furnace get harder. This is a beautifully written book, and the author’s skill and extensive research make the Olsons and Wyeths come to life, along with the famous painting Christina’s World. This is a very moving and melancholy book, and difficult to read at times as Christina’s health suffers and her world narrows. In the end, Wyeth’s friendship and art help her see herself in a new way. This book is sure to be popular with readers of The Orphan Train.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.
Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Dawn Tripp
I enjoyed this compelling novel about artist Georgia O’Keeffe almost as much as I’ve enjoyed looking at her art. Georgia and her older husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, exchanged so many letters that the author had plenty of source material to work with, along with biographies, Georgia’s memoirs, exhibition catalogs, critiques and much more. Fortunately, the author doesn’t let her research get in the way of telling a character-driven, moving, and engaging story about Georgia’s long and adventurous life. The various settings, New York City, the Stieglitz lake house in the Adirondacks, and New Mexico, are detailed and appealing. Georgia and her art change over time, as does her tempestuous relationship with Stieglitz. Recommended for fans of biographical fiction, and especially for readers of Susan Vreeland, Nancy Horan, and Paula McLain.
A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders
A clever, satisfying mystery, the second to feature London book editor Samantha Clair. When Aidan, an old flame, asks Sam to lunch, she is shocked to learn that the gallery owner’s partner Frank has been found dead. Sam, along with her new boyfriend, DI Jake Field, begins investigating. Sam’s knowledge of the publishing world turns out to be both helpful and dangerous. The plotting is smart, the dialogue witty, and Sam can be very funny, especially when she kicks a snob at a dinner party or reacts after a bike accident. Sam’s older neighbor, her assistant Miranda, and her mother Helena, a solicitor, are all good company and do their bit to help Sam and Jake solve the mystery. I’m always happy to find a good new mystery author to recommend. My review of the first book, A Murder of Magpies, is here. There is a third book, but it’s just out in Great Britain, and will probably appear in the U.S. next spring.
Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland
This is another good choice for book discussion groups from Vreeland, author of Luncheon of the Boating Party and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Set in Provence and Paris from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, Parisian Lisette has a rough transition to life in Provence with her husband Andre and his grandfather Pascal. Andre is a frame maker, and Lisette had hoped to work in an art gallery in Paris. Gradually, Lisette learns to appreciate the village of Roussillon and the beauty of the countryside. Elderly Pascal tells Lisette stories of the paintings he has collected and how he acquired them, and of meeting Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne. As a young man, Pascal had mined ochre used for pigments in the paintings. When the war begins, the paintings are hidden. Lisette learns to garden and milk a goat, and meets contemporary painter Marc Chagall. Visit the author’s website for gorgeous photos of Roussillon.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Romance, mystery, history, Victorian art, and rare books combine to make for an engaging read. The setting moves from the 1980s and 1990s in North Carolina and England to the Victorian era and Elizabethan England. In 1995, rare book dealer Peter Byerly has retreated from North Carolina to an English cottage after the death of his wife Amanda. Finally visiting a bookstore, he is stunned to find a Victorian watercolor portrait tucked into a book about Shakespearean forgeries. The portrait looks just like his wife, who studied Victorian art. When Amanda’s books don’t identify the artist, he is referred to an art society meeting in London, where he meets book editor Liz Sutcliffe. The mystery of the portrait and its artist are somehow connected to an Elizabethan novel Pandosto by Robert Greene, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. A copy of Pandosto with margin notes by Shakespeare and a list of people who owned the book could be proof that Shakespeare really wrote his plays; or it could be a forgery. The search puts Peter and Liz in jeopardy, while alternating chapters describe Peter and Amanda’s college years and the people who owned the copy of Pandosto. Peter’s joy in learning about rare books and his love for Amanda add depth to the story.