I found this book at a used book sale and found it to be an unexpected little gem. Written by Harriet Scott Chessman, this historical fiction novel travels back to the Impressionist Art period. Looking into the lives of Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)  and her sister Lydia Cassatt (1837-1882) who was the focus of many of Mary’s works, this book cleverly weaves the story of Lydia’s life and an illness so striking that you can see the pain, the suffering, the paleness, the closeness to death, in the paintings Mary completed of her. This little gem of a book includes several prints of Mary’s depictions of her sister. In full splendor of the Impressionists, Mary captures the essence of the time and of her sister. The author, Chessman, portrays an intimate and very loving relationship between these close sisters and draws conclusions about relationships with other artists including Edgar Degas and others at the time in France, the throbbing heart of the Impressionists.

 The centrality of this novel focuses on Lydia’s impending illness and death as well as Mary’s determination to be one of the best (not only best female but the best) Impressionist painters of the time.

This novel fits right in with the other historical art novelists like Susan Vreeland, whose The Forest Lover depicts Canadian artist Emily Carr (one of my favorite artists whom I had the enjoyable pleasure of visiting the Emily Carr House in Victora, BC) as well as author Tracy Chevalier whose well known work Girl with a Pearl Earring, became a popular movie. 

The historical art novel is a wonderful way to infuse an introduction of art history and art appreciation in one sitting. This could easily be done with historical music novels, but is not as prevalent (so do you want to read about Bach and his umpteen children, or do you want to read about the hidden worlds of artists like Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer?).

I’m on to another novel now, The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, a vast novel with interesting themes, covering the 1500s Mughal Empire, encompassing Persia, Afghanistan, and India. I was tipped off on this novel in the October 2007 issue of National Geographic Traveler which has a well-done article about India and the destinies of pre-arranged marriages.

I have a tottering stack of books at my night table and I’m hoping to read as much as possible over the holidays. This is my favorite time of year to read, when it’s dark and cold. Plus, when you don’t have a TV, what better way to amuse the mind and feed the soul than with books and fantastic storytelling?

I’ll write again soon….. Happy Holidays!

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