Books: Lisette’s List

Having enjoyed Susan Vreeland’s novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany, I decided to try another, Lisette’s List. It is interesting for its depiction of life in a rural village in southern France during the 1940’s, but it did not engage me emotionally nearly as much as Clara and Mr. Tiffany did.

I’m not sure how much that is because of the strong emphasis on art. In Clara and Mr. Tiffany, the art of creating masterpieces from pieces of glass was more about the characters and their love of their craft than it was about the art itself. In Lisette’s List, appreciation of art itself is a major theme.

Perhaps I just find it hard to share the extreme devotion Lisette has to painting and everything to do with it. Perhaps it is because the artists featured in this novel are some whose styles I have trouble appreciating.I don’t dislike the Impressionism of Pisarro but I am not as attracted to it as to some of the older styles. I like some of Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist landscapes but I am unmoved by his still lifes.

I try to find something in Picasso’s work to appreciate but can do so only on an intellectual level, not emotionally. (Perhaps with the exception of Guernica, which I had the opportunity to see while I lived in Madrid, and the history behind which I learned as a student there.) I can perhaps now find more to appreciate in Chagall‘s imaginative works than before, but I cannot begin to share Lisette’s delight in them.

The discussion of art in the novel often felt didactic to me. I like to learn from a book, but not to feel that I am being lectured. The history was interesting, especially how the pigment was mined and processed. But the repeated discussions of “what makes a painting great” felt preachy after a while.

Details about life in German-occupied France were more interesting, and portrayed an aspect of the war that rarely shows up in WWII novels I have read, where the protagonists are usually engaged in combat or espionage, rather than simply trying to maintain their daily lives.

As for the characters and plot, they were more or less interesting, but sometimes not quite convincing. I get the impression that Vreeland wanted to use art and artists to tell a story, and the characters and plot were merely a vehicle for that. If I appreciated the art more, perhaps it would have worked better for me.

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