Back to France and the Impressionists

Book Cover: LIsette's List
Destination: Paris and Provence

Book: Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I never resist the lure of France–particularly when you combine, a book, fine art and some history with the trip.  I’ve read several books and movies about the artists of France here, for example,

 

So how could I resist a new book by Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List,  that is set in both Paris and Roussillon in Provence, and introduces  Cézanne, Pissarro,  Picasso, and Chagall?

Lisette, the central character is forced to leave her beloved Paris and live in primitive Provence, but there she learns more about art than she ever imagined, and finds safe haven during World War II.

She suffers the loss of the two people most important to her, but learns how capable she is of survival. She matures and works on her life list, which includes the seemingly impossible “#4: Learn what makes a painting great.”

Roussillon, Provence, France
Le Village de Roussillon, Provence, France. Photo by Vincent Brassinne, used with Creative Commons license. See the ochre cliffs in the foreground.

The town of Roussillon is an important character in the book, since it is the site of ochre mines–a place where artists get many shades of color. As Lisette learns to look with fresh eyes at art, she also learns to see people and life in new ways. Vreeland has created a satisfying conglomeration of small-town people to surround Lisette.

The driver of the action of the book is a collection of seven paintings that her husband’s grandfather acquired when he was an ochre salesman and befriended Pissarro, and Cézanne.  Lisette herself meets Marc Chagall and his wife Bella who hide out in a neighboring village during the war, and adds another painting to the collection.

Pissaro painting
A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, by Camille Pissarro. Metropolitan Museum of NYC. Photo by Thomas Hawk

But for most of the book, Lisette holds the paintings only in memory, because before the war, her husband hid them for safety from the Nazis.  Her search for the paintings drives the plot.  However, I found this part of the book unsatisfactory, as it was entirely too predictable and sometimes even repetitive.

For someone with no familiarity with the artists in the book, the discussion of their techniques and styles is a good preliminary introduction to painting. However, if you have a background in art, it may seem a bit too much like an art appreciation course. The author’s love of the art and the countryside are evident. Without question, she throws a great deal of research into her work.

I was hoping for more depth, and now am tempted to read one of Vreeland’s earlier biographical novels, each focused on one artist’s life, to see if those books would be more to my liking. Lisette’s List has some interesting things going for it, particularly in the development of characters, and portrayal of a lesser-known part of France’s art world, but it tends to lean toward straight romance rather than the art historic novel I was hoping for.

I must praise her for bringing to our attention the fascinating village of Rousillon, that certainly is a temptation for travelers. Vreeland’s descriptive powers fit well with a book centered on seeing and observing. Her portrayal of the town and landscape is enough to recommend the book to travelers who read.

Is that unfair?  After all Vreeland wrote the book that she wrote. What I was looking for is beside the point. Have you read any of Vreeland’s books?  Tell me about your reactions.

Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

4 thoughts on “Back to France and the Impressionists

  1. I haven’t read any of Vreeland’s books, so I can’t respond to the question at the end of your review; however, I don’t think I agree with your statement that “What I was looking for is beside the point”. For most readers, that’s exactly the point. Many times we look for a book with something specific in mind. For example, a reader might be thinking, “I’m looking for a beach read—something easy and fast moving that I can follow with a sun-addled brain.” Although “A Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might be of Nobel prize winning caliber, it requires a genealogical chart to keep the characters straight, so it might not be the breezy read a particular reader is looking for at a particular time. Without having read “Lisette’s List”, I can’t say with certainty that you’ve nailed it in your review, but I feel that you have provided me with exactly the information I’d be looking for to decide whether I might like to read it. It might indeed be that beach book.

    (I know the comment box instructions say I can use HTML tags for punctuation such as italics, but, I’m afraid that’s beyond me.) :( on me.

    1. Thanks, Suzanne. I hope I can be of assistance to the readers. I just meant that it isn’t fair to criticize an author for making different choices. If I can point out that she writes awkwardly, is not true to information, has unbelievable plots or charaacters–that’s fair game, but because she does not choose to present material in the way that I might have wanted is a personal choice–not necessarily a fault. I just need to try to differentiate between those two things.

  2. I’ve never been able to get into her books – and I have tried. This one, maybe. . .we visited Rousillon a decade ago or so and it was magical – sitting on our deck sipping wine perched high in that village. I’ve come to trust your reviews so I am not sure that this one will grip me either. . .but I may give it a try!

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