The opening chapters of this book captivated me, as they will anyone who is interested in art and how it’s made. We begin with two newlyweds, Lisette and André, on a train platform. They are leaving their beloved Paris for their new home in Rousillon, a village in Provence. We know from the date – 1938 – that things are not going to go well for long.
Before then, however, we arrive in Rousillon and meet the book’s most charming characters, the town bus driver and Pascal, the grandfather who raised newlywed André, whom the young couple will now live with and care for. In his prime, Pascal was a frame maker – a skill he passed on to grandson André – and also sold pigments made from locally mined ochre.
No one who’s ever held a tube of yellow ochre will ever look at it in the same way again. One of Vreeland’s strongest skills is weaving detailed research seamlessly into her stories. I learned that 17 shades of pigment were made from Rousillon ochre, and I kept a list in hopes of learning the names of all of them; I didn’t, but found a considerable number. It all made me long for the smell of paint and linseed oil.
The book’s greatest pleasure comes from Pascal, whose remaining mission in life is to tell Lisette how he came to own paintings by Cézanne, Pissarro, and Picasso. Vreeland’s portraits of these artists are vibrant and almost heartbreakingly human. When Pascal passes out of the pages and André goes off to war, the story weakens and never regains the appeal of its opening chapters.
Although we get interesting glimpses of life in occupied France, Lisette is not a strong enough character to carry the story on her own. She is essentially an observer and helpmeet in the classic sense of the word, inspiring and necessary to men, unassuming to the point of tedium on her own. Once the men were offstage, I had a hard time sustaining interest in her. Her passivity toward a local constable’s behavior, and the author’s own mixed messages about the character, make for a muddied and meaningless subplot, while Lisette’s ultimate fate comes without suspense and takes far too long to play out.
The device of Lisette’s “list” is unnecessary, a treasure hunt for Pascal’s missing paintings is far-fetched to the point of silliness, and the murkily drawn character of the local constable does the book no favors. That said, there was enough in the war and post-war sections to keep me reading — more details about ochre processing and a vivid cameo of artist Marc Chagall and his wife, hiding from the Nazis on the outskirts of town. Rousillon itself made me wish it could have been saved from the tourists soon to come. Those high points and the sections dominated by Pascal and his memories make the book well worth reading. Readers looking for a strong central character, a fully-rounded wartime romance, or a second Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might be disappointed.
Jury of One: Would I read this book again? Yes indeed.