Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
Harriet Scott Chessman
Seven Stories Press ($24)
La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl
Houghton Mifflin ($24)
by Carrie Mercer
You can't judge a book by its cover, the old adage goes. But what if the cover is not just something the art department at the publishing house cooked up to lure the ever-roving consumer's eye? What if it's real art? And by real art, I mean art that had a long and prosperous life of its own before some publisher plastered a title and author's name on top of it (not to mention one of those controversial Oprah stickers).
For most authors, pretty much the last thing on their minds when they write a novel is the artwork on the cover of their future book. However, for a few, that artwork would seem to be an essential element of the story. Hence, we have two recent novels, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, by Harriet Scott Chessman, and La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl, by David Huddle.
The first book's cover sports a painting of exactly what the title describes, though the painting's title is actually Woman Reading, by the famous impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. We learn from the novel that Mary's older sister Lydia was the model for the painting, and Mary posed her with a newspaper, instead of the (at that time) traditional novel, so that she might look more modern. This detail, like many others in the book, is culled from the author's extensive research on the Cassatt family. Where Chessman departs from research and dreams "my way into her world," is in her point of view: Mary's sister Lydia tells the story through internal monologue. She relates observations and feelings about relationships with her family, the color and bustle of Paris in the late 1870s-early 1880s (where the family was living at the time), and perhaps most interestingly, how she sees herself in a different light through her sister's paintbrush.
The novel is structured around five portraits Mary did of her sister, and the main conflict, sadly, is not fictional. Much as Lydia loves to pose for her sister, she struggles to find the energy to do so as she gets sicker and sicker from a degenerative kidney disease. But she finds another self in Mary's paintings, where "sickness holds no place," and she takes comfort there. At times Lydia struggles with wanting to live "in that creamy world of no difficulty." Chessman creates a symbiotic intimacy between the sisters that deepens as a result of the paintings. Lydia needs to pose so that she can see herself through her sister's eyes, and Mary needs Lydia as a model, so that she can see her sister more clearly. After Mary paints Lydia Crocheting in the Garden, Lydia notices her features are "dissolving"and thinks, "It's illness she's discovered." Mary doesn't want to accept Lydia's illness, but in the painting, Lydia sees "not what [Mary] acknowledges, perhaps, but what she knows."
One of the delights of this novel is that we are provided with color plates of all five portraits and can study along with Lydia and so make our own discoveries. The meditative quality of Chessman's writing feels like an appropriate companion to the paintings; each has its dabs of color and momentary, passionate impressions. Chessman bestows Lydia with a painterly eye, turning her thoughts and feelings into composition and landscape: Lydia remarks how "the [orange] peelings make a sphere on her plate" and later how a look from Mary's friend Edgar Degas felt "like a storm on a coast, stirring the trees to wildness, shifting the dunes."
The cover of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, then, is a straightforward invitation to enter into a deeper contemplation of some well-known artwork. Chessman crafts a compelling examination of mortality through the musings of the dying Lydia. Lydia's acceptance of the life she's had--and its impending close--is complicated by her sister's paintings. In the end, she is somewhat contented by the idea that each of Mary's portraits "creates a kind of memory. Whether or not anyone ever knew me, she will offer a memory of me, for the world to claim."
The cover of La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl is, alas, not so straightforward an invitation. The only intimacy we experience with this painting is in its magnification: spidery cracks spread over a face so magnified that it has crowded out everything else, to the point that its circumference can only be imagined beyond the edges of the book's cover. And the face does not belong to the Wolf Girl of the title, but to the thieving accomplice of an old gypsy in Georges de la Tour's The Fortune-Teller.
So who is the Wolf Girl? She is the invention, not of La Tour, but of Suzanne Nelson, the fictional head of the Art Department at the University of Vermont, who is the invention of David Hubble, the author of this odd novel. Suzanne retreats from her failing marriage into the solitude of her daydreams, which she believes "help her create the narrative-based criticism no one else is writing." We never see this criticism, but instead are privy to her strange daydreams about Georges de la Tour, a 17th-century French painter whose work was credited until relatively recently to Caravaggio, among others. La Tour's paintings depicted the daily miseries of peasants with great accuracy, but what little is known of him personally indicates he was as unpleasant and violent as his equally talented contemporary, Caravaggio: court records note one incident in which he beat a peasant almost to death. Huddle's Suzanne is interested in La Tour precisely because of this disconnect between "the deeply humane vision of his paintings and the Š nastiness of his character."
In Suzanne's daydreams, the Wolf Girl is Vivienne, a shoemaker's teenage daughter who poses as a model for La Tour. What makes her the Wolf Girl is a "coarse thatch" of hair on her back. Vivienne's parents have kept from her any knowledge of this anomalous feature of her body, and on seeing it, so does La Tour. Whereas Vivienne's parents hide the hairy patch to downplay its significance, La Tour keeps it a secret because he is infatuated with it. He poses Vivienne just so that he can stare at her defect. This ongoing fantasy seems to parallel somewhat an experience Suzanne had in college posing nude as a life model for a drawing class. Suzanne was simultaneously aroused and repulsed by the slovenly instructor who posed her. In turn, this experience recalls an earlier encounter with Elijah, a handicapped boy who sketched as he sat next to her on the school bus. But where does this elaborate trail lead?
One thing it leads to is a lot of overwritten extramarital sex. "I came like a freight train. I came like the Fourth of July. I came like a sea elephant," Suzanne thinks after she sleeps with a man she hardly knows simply because she is turned on by his art. Likewise, Suzanne's husband Jack has an equally fulfilling morning with his lover, who "moved him beyond what he thought were the limits of his sexual capacity." Stagey dialogue makes Huddle's characters even more ridiculous, with lines like "Drive fastŠ Take some chances, Jack. I'll make it worth your while."
Where Huddle is most successful is in his examination of art as a tool we use to form our identities, often unwittingly. Thinking back to her schooldays, Suzanne "begins to see certain parts of her daily life in terms of Elijah's pictures. Or she remembers pieces of her experience as if Elijah had drawn them." Similarly, Suzanne's Vivienne keys into the power of deception as a kind of self-affirming art when she makes up stories about herself to satisfy La Tour's curiosity. "Until you began to ask me about my life, I never saw it," she tells La Tour.
Unlike Chessman's Lydia, who saw a thought-provoking but distinctly foreign self in her sister's paintings, Huddle's Suzanne believes completely in the representations her schoolmate Elijah draws of her and her classmates: "once Elijah had set it into a picture and allowed her to see it, she could grasp what she already knew." It's ironic that of the two novels, the one whose protagonist is most obsessed with art has the least to contribute to our understanding of the artwork on its cover.
Is it fair to require illumination from these novels? Fair or not, their covers create expectations that can be difficult to fulfill. There is potential for the novel to inform the artwork and vice versa, and when it works, as it does in Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, we are left with something larger than the sum of the two works of art. When it doesn't, the cover feels like a cheap enticement. Perhaps Huddle's novel would have felt more complete had it not been paired with such a suggestive cover. Like Suzanne remembering drawings of events Elijah was never present at, some readers may experience the unfortunate side effect of imagining an added detail in La Tour's painting--the unseen hairy back of the Fortune-Teller's young assistant.