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,
- Renoir (the movie)
- Degas and Cassat in I Always Loved You
- Various Artists in Greater Journeys
- Monet’s Garden (photos)
- Linnet Visits Monet’s Garden (Children’s Book
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.”
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.
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.