Harriett Scott Chessman's prose moves with the deceptive beauty of
a ballet dancer, its weightless grace diverting attention from the
muscularity powering every gesture. Nothing is squandered, as this
wisp-thin novel offers up more sharp-eyed observation and insight
than books five times its girth.
Consider the narrator's description of Edgar Degas, whom she likens
to a dog. "He bit into subjects --- the foolishness of one artist
or another, the insipidity of someone's latest effort, I can't
remember --- all the while his eyes lit on things in our apartment,
with an air of studying and maybe breaking them: the tea set, the
Japanese vase on the mantel, me."
LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER is a fictionalized story
based on the relationship between the American impressionist
painter Mary Cassatt and her sister, Lydia, who narrates the story.
The novel revolves around sessions in which Lydia poses for her
sister. Lydia, 41, is dying of Bright's disease. On a good day,
sitting and holding a newspaper while Mary paints her is physically
exhausting. On a bad day, getting out of bed would be an impossible
Mary, seven years her junior, is on the cusp of realizing her
creative ambitions, having been accepted as the only woman in the
inner circle of late 19th Century impressionists who were stirring
up Paris and the art world.
These sisters savor their time together because they deeply love
each other and they know they'll soon be parted. Much goes
unspoken. The younger sister avoids acknowledging that Lydia has
little time left and the older woman doesn't force the
conversation. They communicate through the work. "I was sick again
this morning, and May (Lydia refers to her sister by this nickname
throughout) looked discouraged as she helped me wash my face and
get dressed. I wonder whether this will be May's last picture of
me. I think May wonders this too, because there's a new quietness
between us. She's intensely focused on her work, and she paints for
a long time without a pause."
The third and only other significant character in the book is
Degas. In real life, Degas was Lydia's close friend and mentor.
They may or may not have been lovers. In Chessman's novel, there is
a romance, though it is only glimpsed through Lydia's observations.
"He touched the nape of May's neck. He caressed her for a moment
and she leaned into him." Such passages poignantly capture Mary's
combination of tender joy for her sister, curiosity and yearning
for a type of love that she knows is only in her past. The
descriptions of Degas are among the best parts of this luminous
book. Lydia knows well the famous painter's reputation for cruelty
but experiences only kindness and respect from him. She regards him
with affection, but is never completely at ease. "...this sensation
of being protected from the Cyclops by the Cyclops itself, while he
eats everyone else in sight --- well, it's fragile at best," Lydia
The novel holds no suspense in its plot --- the reader knows the
ending from the first page --- but it manages to continually
surprise with its startlingly lovely language. There is little in
the way of action --- a paintbrush flutters across a canvass, cider
spills in the grass. The novel takes on big themes --- the love
between sisters, artistic passion, even mortality --- but it does
so one tiny, exquisite detail at a time.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Holt on January 22, 2011
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper