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Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion. Never had history been more vibrant, its voices more resonating, its images more gripping. On this first trip to Europe, I felt myself a pilgrim: To me, even secular places such as museums and ruins were imbued with the sacred. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, religious and social history--I was swept away with all of it, wanting to read more, to learn languages, to fill my mind with rich, glorious, long-established culture wrought by human desire, daring, and faith. I wanted to keep a Gothic cathedral alive in my heart.
I loved the people of my imagination: the man whose last breath in his flattened chest was taken under the weight of a stone fallen from the Duomo under construction in Florence, the apprentice who cut himself preparing glass for the jeweled windows of Sainte Chapelle, the sweating quarry worker aching behind his crowbar at Carrara to release a marble that would become the Pietà, the proud mother who, weeping and full of misgivings, sent her child on the last Crusade, the gaiety of the Montmartre dancers at Moulin de la Galette.
In a fashion I couldn't imagine then, I have been true to this pledge. I have brought to life the daughter of the Dutch painter Vermeer who secretly yearned to paint the Delft she loved. I've given voice to the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, raped at seventeen by her painting teacher, the first woman to paint large scale figures from history and scripture previously reserved for men. On my own continent, I've entered deep British Columbian forests with Emily Carr, whose love for native people took her to places proper white women didn't go. My imagination has followed Modigliani's daughter around Paris searching for shreds of information about the father she never knew. I've conjured a poor wetnurse, bereaved of her own baby so that a rich woman, Berthe Morisot, might paint. I've taken my seventeenth century Tuscan shoemaker to Rome to have his longed-for religious experience under the Sistine ceiling. I've followed Renoir's models to cabarets and boat races, to war and elopement, to the Folies-Bergère and luncheons by the Seine. I've entered Tiffany Studios with the women artisans who created exquisite works in art glass, and followed them out to turn-of-the-nineteenth-century New York streets bursting with social and technological changes. And now my flights of fancy are taking me one of the most beautiful villages in France, Roussillon in Provence which I am peopling with characters entirely of my own invention.
Now some facts as to how I arrived here: After graduating from San Diego State University, I taught high school English in San Diego beginning in 1969 and retired in 2000 after a 30-year career. Concurrently, I began writing features for newspapers and magazines in 1980, taking up subjects in art and travel, and publishing 250 articles. I ventured into fiction in 1988 with What Love Sees, a biographical novel of a woman's unwavering determination to lead a full life despite blindness. My short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Manoa, Connecticut Review, Calyx, Crescent Review, So To Speak and elsewhere.
My art-related fiction, products of my pledge on Pont Neuf:
My work has been translated into twenty-five languages.
So, what have I learned from all of this? That entering the mind and heart of painters has taught me to see, and to be more appreciative of the beauties of the visible world. That I can agree with Renoir when he said, "I believe that I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendor (Nature)." That people are hungry for real lives behind the paintings. That readers' lives have been enriched, their sensibilities sharpened, even their goals for their own creative endeavors given higher priorities in their lives.
And especially this: Thanks to
art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own,
we see it multiplied and can peer into other times, other worlds
which offer windows to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively
into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation
of the human race. Consider this: Where there is no imagination
of others' lives, there is no human connection. Where there is
no human connection, there is no chance for compassion to govern.
Without compassion, then loving kindness, human understanding,
peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, and the isolated
can turn resentful, narrow, cruel; they can become blinded, and
that's where prejudice, holocausts, terrorism and tragedy hover.
Art--and literature--are antidotes to that.
adapted from susanvreeland.com
1. How do Clara's yearnings and goals change during the course of the novel. What personal growth is revealed, and what experiences prompt that growth?
2. At the first Tiffany Ball with Edwin in chapter nine, Clara says, "We straddled a double world." How does that play out in Clara's experience? What did she learn from Edwin?
3. Of all of the adjectives Clara and Alice heap on Tiffany in chapter twenty-seven, which ones do you believe are justified and which are exaggerations? In spite of their accusations, Clara says in the same scene that she adores him. How can that be? Did she truly love him? What kind of love was it?
4. How was Clara's love different for each of the five men in her life? Given that love can sometimes be an indefinable thing, in each case, what prompted her love and how did it change, if at all?
5. Is George Waldo a tragic character? Is Edwin? Is Wilhelmina? How do you define tragic character?
6. Throughout the novel there are social contrasts-rich and poor, suffering and insouciance. Speculate on how these serve to make Clara a more well-rounded or deeper person, as well as how they serve to make the novel transcend the period depicted.
7. Mr. Tiffany makes a surprising final concession in chapter forty-seven. What was it based on? In light of it, should Clara have stayed working at Tiffany Studios? How was her decision right or wrong for her?
8. How is the Brooklyn Bridge an icon or symbol of the time? Consider its style, the construction process, the men and woman who worked on it. You may have to do a little research. Why was Edwin so moved by it? What other material things were symbols of the time? In what way were Tiffany lamps icons of the time?
9. The style and sensibility that had no name at the turn of the century came to be known as camp, one element of which is seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon and then exaggerating it. Another element of it is the playful duplicity of which Henry Belknap speaks. What art movements, artists, or pieces of art in your lifetimes reflect the camp sensibility? Do you own anything with camp sensibility? Oscar Wilde, spokesperson of high camp, said, "In matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style." To what extent do you hold this to be true? Was he just being flippant by making this statement or is there any truth to it?
10. The protagonists of two other novels of mine are female artists. How do Clara's goals, obstacles, and attitudes compare with those of Artemisia Gentileschi and Emily Carr? Has anything changed for women in the arts?
Reproduced with permission from litlovers.com and Random House