Thursday, February 9, 2017

Christina Baker Kline's newest novel Inspired by Art--"A Piece of the World" ticketed event at the Lynden Sculpture Garden

I was looking at our book club flier recently and realized that almost a quarter of our recommendations incorporated the visual arts world in some way.

The Improbability of Love, Hannah Rothschild's 2015 novel, was championed first by Sharon and then by Jane, the latter with such ferocity that she convinced me to read it for our In-store Lit Group. What a hit it's been at Boswell! At the center of the story is a young woman who inadvertently purchases a valuable painting at a second-hand store, setting off a worldwide chase. The book is filled with interesting insights in collecting and an education in itself about Antoine Watteau and the Fête Galante school of art.

The Muralist is B.A. Shapiro's second art history themed novel with a bit of a mystery, following The Art Forger. At the center is a fictional painter who disappeared during World War II, with the story jumping back and forth between her life as an abstract expressionist who earns a commission from Eleanor Roosevelt to help create a non-figurative mural and her niece's exploration of what happened to her. The fictional character at the center is surrounded by historical characters of the time, including many painters. I'd love a debate from readers of historical fiction about whether they prefer everyone to be historical or the central characters to be fictional. I'm guessing that by inserting fictional characters, you can do a lot more with plot. You'd be caught between a dry story or one that sacrificed enough facts that you'd be hard pressed to call it historical fiction.

Alice Hoffman has turned to historical fiction for her last few books, before veering back to contemporary with her recent Faithful, but The Marriage of Opposites was the first to use real people at the center of the story. Jane has been a big fan of this one, set on St. Thomas, about a group of Jewish refugees from the Inquisition. The focus is on the mother of Camille Pissaro, the artist who is said to be the Father of Impressionism.

Even though it was taken off the winter-spring book club list, I'm still trying to hand-sell And Again, the contemporary novel with a speculative twist from Jessica Chiarella about a group of people in a secret support group in Chicago who, facing death, had their memories inserted using stem cell technology into cloned and aged bodies. I am reinvigorated because ex-Boswellian Rebecca took my advice to read it and loved it. I told her it had a Station Eleven feel, with the science fiction element making it a story that sparks a lot of "what if?" discussion. We had three really good reads on the book, but the book doesn't have much outside momentum and every attempt to sell it is a labor of love.

Where's the art, you say? At the center of the story is a talented visual artist who still has the drive she had before, but she's lost her body memory. A lot of the quandaries hinge on body vs brain and Hannah's is no exception. But the story isn't all bonding in a support group and ethical dilemmas. There's also an illicit affair that messes everything up. Highly recommended!

And don't think we're running out of ideas for our next seasonal brochure. I'm already very excited to pitch Molly Prentiss's Tuesday Nights in 1980 to book clubs, the story of an artist, a critic, and a muse in New York during its artistic renaissance. It comes out in May.

I could list fifty more works of fiction I love with art at the center, and many more that have reached great heights of popularity. Do I need to mention Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, for example? Or one of the most popular Christopher Moore novels, Sacré Blue, which definitely had a crossover into the art patron world, at least for us. But what is it about the visual arts that offers inspiration to writers?

For one thing, there are so many good stories to draw upon. For another, it's a great stand-in for the writing process, which is really what most writers are thinking about every day. Because not every book contemplating the creative process can be about writing in an already flooded market, many turn to art, music, and theater. But based on my reading experiences, I think sometimes authors translate their writing experiences into that of other arts.

So that's where I get to Christina Baker Kline, a writer who wrote a number of well-regarded novels before exploding onto the bestseller lists with Orphan Train. Prior to that, Kline was writing in a more contemporary idiom, with at least one novel that might have been positioned as psychological suspense (Desire Lines), had that genre been as heated as it is now (see previous blog). She also edited a number of anthologies and wrote a motherhood memoir. You think people come out of nowhere but sometimes, the best books are truly breakouts, with the author honing their craft over many years.

Orphan Train surely hit a nerve. It's about a teenager charged with helping an older woman clean out her attic, uncovering the story of the older woman's past, linking them together. And that past revolves around the orphan trains, which carried unwanted children to the farms of the Midwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I could list rave reviews from readers, novelists, and critics for the rest of this post, but let's assume you know how good Orphan Train is, and just have this nice recommendation from novelist Mary Morris: "Christina Baker Kline weaves a tapestry of the intertwining lives of two women and affirms our hope that the present can redeem the past and that love has a genuine power to heal. Reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabel, this Orphan Train carries us along until the stories of these two women become one.”

Kline's forthcoming novel, A Piece of the World (on sale 2/21), decides to stay in the historical genre and as you must have guessed by now, uses art as inspiration. For the heart of the story is Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth's painting, Christina's World. The story imagines not just the incident that led up to Wyeth painting her, but everything in life that led to Wyeth pulling out from her the humanity that he captures in his painting. Of course I was reminded a bit of the Vermeer revival, partly inspired by two novels that were inspired by his paintings, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

One constant that connects with Orphan Train is the Maine setting. I could certainly do a piece on Maine fiction, as it's always been a hotbed of inspiration. And there's so much about Maine that makes great fiction--there's always a bit of hardscrabble in the stories (of course you read The Beans of Egypt, Maine), but it's also had the wealthy Northeasterners summering there (Courtney Sullivan's Maine comes to mind). A Piece of the World has a little bit of both, with Christina's family being longtime farmers, struggling to keep the land, visited in the summer by Bostonians, one of whom takes a liking to Christina. Worlds collide, and while we hope for the best, we have to remember that this is not speculative fiction.

I can't do justice to the book, so I will let some eloquent writers speak for me.

From Michael Chabon: “A Piece of the World is a graceful, moving and powerful demonstration of what can happen when a fearless literary imagination combines with an inexhaustible curiosity about the past and the human heart: a feat of time travel, a bravura improvisation on the theme of art history, a wonderful story that seems to have been waiting, all this time, for Christina Baker Kline to come along and tell it.”

Lily King, author of Euphoria: “The inscrutable figure in the foreground of Wyeth’s Christina’s World is our American Mona Lisa, and Christina Baker Kline has pulled back the veil to imagine her rich story. Tender, tragic, A Piece of the World is a fascinating exploration of the life lived inside that house at the top of the hill.”

And even Erik Larson, author of Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City: “With A Piece of the World, Baker Kline gives us a brilliantly imagined fictional memoir of the woman in the famed Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, so detailed, moving, and utterly transportive that I’ll never be able to look at the painting again without thinking of this book and the characters who populate its pages.”

In a way, Kline's artistic inspiration reaches all the way back to her first novel, Sweet Water, which is the story of a New York artist who returns home to the Tennessee farm of her grandmother. And doesn't it make sense then that we're cosponsoring Christina Baker Kline's event at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, one of Milwaukee's artistic treasures? She's part of the Women's Speaker Series on Sunday, March 5, 2 pm. Tickets are $30, $25 for Lynden members, and include admission, a copy of A Piece of the World, light refreshments, and all taxes and fees. You can reserve your spot at the Lynden website. We expect to sell out for this event, so I would get your seat now. You can also call them at 414-446-8794.

And don't forget, even if you don't attend, we can get a copy signed for you.

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