Pros: Interesting story, but much too short and trivial.
Cons: Try as I might, I didn't warm to this one.
In this very slim novel, author Harriet Chessman turns her attention to the life of the Impressionist painter, Mary (here called May) Cassatt, and the relationship that she had with her elder sister Lydia. May is part of the growing Impressionist movement, a looser style of painting that rejected the traditional styles of the neo-classical period in favor of expressing light and emotion.
Told from Lydia's point of view, this first person narrative is intriguing for all that it leaves as out as much as it includes. We get to know Lydia personally, from her memories of a childhood that was tinged with death, to her own fight against against mortality -- for she is suffering from Bright's Disease, an affliction of the kidneys that will eventually prove to be fatal.
Throughout the book, which centers on the paintings that May had her sister pose for, the most prevalent emotions were that of guilt -- from May for asking so much of her sister, and from Lydia for being a burden on her family. While the writing style is fairly loose -- sentences begin and end in mid-phrase -- the evocation of a time and place is well done. Besides May and Lydia, other members of the family make very brief appearances, as well as the artist Edgar Degas, who may or may not have been May's lover.
What I did enjoy in this was the inclusion of colour photographs of the five paintings that May did of Lydia, and they added a great deal to the story as I could make sense of the rather disjointed narrative. And it's also where the novel stumbles. There's so little information given, and the character development is so brief, that the story was little more than descriptions hung around each painting.
While that makes for an interesting exercise in writing, it does prove to be less than satisfying for the reader. I was hoping for something more substantial here, going a bit more into the lives of expatriate Americans in Paris, or perhaps the struggle of women artists to be accepted as equals. Instead, we get nothing but trivialities, and only a flash of anything beyond the constrained lives of these two sisters.
Still, it's a step in the right direction, and I can only hope that someone out there will write a more comprehensive story about Mary Cassatt, and the other women who were involved in the artistic revolution that shook up nineteenth century Europe.
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
Harriet Scott Chessman
Seven Stories Press