Lisette’s List (Book Acquired, Some Time in August, 2014)

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Susan Vreeland’s historical novel Lisette’s List is new in hardback from Random House. The Kirkus review is pretty enthusiastic:

Une jolie Parisienne in Provence during the turbulent World War II years comes to understand love and great art to the core of her being.

In a sweeping historical novel set in Vichy, France, Lisette Roux, a 20-year-old bride who longs for “window-shopping, cabaret hopping, gallery gazing,” grudgingly moves out of Paris to the rural south to take care of her new husband André’s aging grandfather in 1937. “How are we going to survive in a town without a gallery?” she asks in dismay. But Pascal is not your ordinary grandpère: An ochre miner–turned–pigment salesman, he befriended young, unappreciated painters and amassed a collection of Cézanne, Pissarro and Picasso paintings. After Pascal dies, the loving couple is cast out of an Edenic existence following the German invasion of France. André enlists to fight the Nazis and meets a tragic end midway through the book. Lisette’s short stay in Provence stretches out more than a decade, prolonged by the war and her determined attempt to find Pascal’s pictures, which André hid for safekeeping before going to war. Lisette’s sensibility deepens as she grows closer to former prisoner of war Maxime Legrand, André’s fellow soldier and best friend. Marc and Bella Chagall, hiding in Provence because they are Jewish, show up for a brief but blazing cameo appearance. Vreeland, who has proven in earlier art-themed best-sellers that she has an exquisite eye for detail, is enormously talented at establishing the important societal role of art, particularly relevant here as the Nazis both steal and burn it. While her prose can get a bit fluffy (“apricot trees blossoming with pinkish-white petals like flakes of the moon”) and the book wraps up a tad too tidily, her deeply researched novel is mesmerizing.

Merveilleux. Vreeland’s passionate writing is as good as a private showing at the Louvre.

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I Audit Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Part 3 of 3)

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

(Parts one and two for those who care).

I suppose one sign of a great book is that it leaves you wanting more, and as Bring Up the Bodies arrived smoothly and precisely to its end, I found myself wanting more—more of those impeccable period details, more shots of London crowds gathering to ogle corpses, more of Henry VIII’s pretzel logic—but most of all, more time in Thomas Cromwell’s mind, which is the supreme pleasure of the book. Mantel’s restraint pays off, although a glance at Bring Up the Bodies hardly seems restrained: it’s 432 pages in hardback, or 24 hours in the audiobook version I listened to. I usually shudder when a review copy of 400 pages shows up at Biblioklept World Headquarters. It seems to me that most books of 400 pages could be improved dramatically if the author cut 200 pages—or added 600 more. And surely Mantel could have added 600 or 700 pages to the story of Henry’s offing the Boleyn siblings. The material is just that rich. But Mantel knows what she’s doing here, and the book she delivers is balanced and thorough and engaging and, as I said, leaves the reader wanting more, leaves us anticipating the trilogy’s conclusion, The Mirror and the Light.

Mantel’s ability to express Cromwell’s keen intelligence reanimates the Tudor saga, which I frankly could give a rat’s ass about on its own. Okay, the plot is fascinating, but much of history fascinates. What’s remarkable is the manner by which Mantel channel’s Cromwell’s mind. His brain is always at work, and Mantel shows us that brain at work. It would be a mistake to suggest that Bring Up the Bodies has no prose style, but it’s difficult to describe the style—Mantel elides authorial intrusion; her free indirect style stays close to Cromwell’s perceptions, but she knows when to move her camera out, knows when to show her audience a shot of his face or a gesture of his hand when he receives some piece of information or imparts some command. She rarely tells us what Cromwell is thinking, instead allowing us to go through the cognitive process with him.

And that cognitive process never rests. There’s a remarkable passage near the end of the book that ties together so many of the book’s themes and images. I would quote in full but I listened to the audio, so I’ll have to paraphrase (forgiveness, please). Cromwell is busy making arrangements for the executions of Boleyn and the men accused of sleeping with her, and his mind turns somehow to imagery of gristle and bone and fat—and he wonders what the ancient Greek pagans and Hebrews of the bible did with the meat from their sacrifices—Surely they didn’t waste the meat, surely they gave it to the poor, he thinks. Cromwell figures Boleyn as a sacrifice and then converts that sacrifice into a concern for the common people of the commonwealth.

Of course, it’s a mistake to see Cromwell’s motivations as absolutely pure. The revenge plot of Bring Up the Bodies unfolds so smoothly that the reader (okay, this reader) is slow to catch on, to see how delicately and expertly Cromwell snares those who brought down his beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey. His control is so precise (Mantel’s control is so precise) that he refuses to tip his hand to himself, let alone the schemers around him, let alone the reader.

Still, Bring Up the Bodies concludes with an uneasy Cromwell, a man already looking for solace in grandchildren, in some kind of futurity, in a life (in a rare metatextual gesture on Mantel’s part) on paper, a figure marked in ink and words. He’s too perceptive—too sharp a reader—not to see the writing on the wall, even if that wall is some years out, even if that writing is still malleable and undefined. Cromwell has controlled the myriad political, familial, and personal circumstances that surround the wishes of his prince, King Henry, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before his favor falls.

Bring Up the Bodies is a fantastic sequel to Wolf Hall, picking up the reins in media res, yet never resting on that first book’s tropes (“Choose your prince”; “Arrange your face”), but rather absorbing them and then adding to them. Mantel has given those of us not particularly interested in historical fiction a great reason to read some, although dithering about genre seems silly here. Ultimately, she gives us a powerful, character-driven story, a story that we think we already know, but understand anew in her retelling. Recommended.