A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was on a kick of reading novels set in a single day. I wish Sena Jeter Naslund's latest, THE FOUNTAIN OF ST. JAMES COURT; OR, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN, had been published back then, as it would have fit the bill perfectly. Plus, it has the added element of being a novel-within-a-novel, also always appealing to those of us who love books and reading and challenging plots.
Here Naslund sets a historical novel --- a sort of fictionalized autobiography of the 18th-century French artist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun --- within a contemporary novel that takes place in a single day. The protagonist of the contemporary novel, Kathryn Callaghan, is the author of the other one. She has just finished the manuscript and dropped it off with her lifelong friend Leslie, who has recently moved to the Louisville, Kentucky, neighborhood of the book's title. The idea here is that we are reading Kathryn's novel at the same time Leslie is.
"Depending on their tastes and sympathies, readers are likely to respond more to one portion of this novel-within-a-novel than the other. Still, any reader who has considered the intersection of art and (women) artists' lives will find something that speaks to her here."
Either part of Naslund's novel could have been called PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN. Ryn isn't old, exactly, but is definitely getting up there in years and is unsure whether and how to move forward following completion of this most recent manuscript. She has lived through three failed marriages, the most recent of which ended within the last two years, and is tentatively ready to move on. But as she travels throughout her day, she finds her mind moving backwards in time more than forward, reflecting on those relationships that defined her life --- not only her romantic relationships but also (and particularly) the relationship with her son, Humphrey.
Humphrey is now grown and living with his husband in Sweden, much to Kathryn's simultaneous relief that Humphrey has found a nice partner and regret they're so far away. And a good thing, too, since Humphrey's abusive ex-boyfriend, Jerry, appears to be making an unwelcome appearance back in the seemingly tranquil atmosphere of Old Louisville.
This rising suspense is set alongside the even more turbulent life events of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, the subject of Kathryn's recently completed novel. Having had her talent identified at an early age by her father (who dies while Elisabeth is still a child), Elisabeth is emboldened to pursue her art at a time when few female painters were recognized or celebrated. Ryn's first-person narration of Elisabeth's life is rather formal and could grow tiresome if not broken up as it is here, but the drama of her life and her friendship with Marie Antoinette (the subject of Naslund's earlier novel, ABUNDANCE) is undeniable.
Naslund's title is obviously a homage to James Joyce, but in reality, her novel is much more a tribute to the work of Virginia Woolf, particularly MRS. DALLOWAY and TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, both of which are referenced numerous times in the contemporary portions of the book. What factors in a woman's life enable her to pursue art? the novel considers. And how have those factors changed --- or not --- in the more than 200 years between Elisabeth's maturation as an artist and Ryn's maturation as a writer? Depending on their tastes and sympathies, readers are likely to respond more to one portion of this novel-within-a-novel than the other. Still, any reader who has considered the intersection of art and (women) artists' lives will find something that speaks to her here.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 20, 2013