Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: Luncheon of the Boating Party

Luncheon of the Boating Party
Susan Vreeland
Penguin Books
copyright 2007
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

I had a breakthrough while reading this historical fiction novel that gives the insight and background into Renoir's painting of this Impression masterpiece.  First of all I discovered that historical fiction is a genre that is perfectly suited to an analytical bibliophile like myself (not sure why I have waited this long to find that out!) and...  I discovered what it means to "read like a writer"  This is a concept that my professor last summer tried to teach, but somehow it eluded me.  I seem to become so wrapped in the narrative, that I fail to pay close attention to the craft.  With this novel I was able to do both at the same time - and it was a marvelous experience!

I did thoroughly enjoy the narrative --- Renoir's initial idea of capturing la vie moderne (modern life) on a large canvas in only two short months and totally en plein air.  He  wanted this to be a testimony to the happiness experienced at this moment in time in France's history.   A time when all Parisians - no matter their pecking order in society - could relax and intermingle on carefree Sunday afternoons.  I enjoyed the insights into the characters' lives - the lives they lived during the week in various parts of Paris and its environs - and their interpersonal lives shared on these eight Sunday afternoons in Chatou on the terrace of the Maison Fournaise restaurant.

Ms. Vreeland wrote in quite a bit of detail; in fact one of the continuous threads throughout the narrative, focused on the number of people in the painting.  Renoir's original concept called for fourteen figures, but on any given Sunday there would always be at least one who could not join them.  While I know that thirteen is not a lucky number, I did not realize its stigma in the art world.  The Last Supper is a masterpiece around a dinner table of thirteen people - one of which betrays the guest of honor - the Christ.  There would not be a art dealer in all of France who would accept this painting if only thirteen diners were represented, and Renoir's hopes and dreams of this work being showcased in the Louvre would be impossible.  While Renoir carried through with his original plan, the fourteenth person continues to remain a mystery (although the author does provide a viable explanation at the end of the story).  The following picture, courtesy of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C. (where the painting permanently resides) describes "who's who":
1.  Aline Charigot
2.  Alphonse Fournaise
3.  Alphonsine Fournaise
4.  Baron Raoul Barbier
5.  Jules Laforgue
6.  Ellen Andree
7.  Angele
8.  Charles Ephrussi
9.  Gustave Caillebotte
10.  Antonio Maggiolo
11.  Eugene Pierre Lestringuez
12.  Paul Lhote
13.  Jeanne Samary
14.  ???
While the story was a nice literary escape to another romantic era in time (and for that reason alone makes it a worthwhile summer read), I was truly absorbed by the eloquence and craft of Ms. Vreeland's writing.  I even learned a new literary term, Ekphrasis, which is "the description in literature of a work of art made in another medium" (quoted from the author's website)  I had no idea that there was a specific term for this style of writing, but I know that it is a subject in which I need to educate myself further.  There were several passages in the book where I could vividly "see" the painting in great detail because of Ms. Vreeland's eloquent descriptions of diffused light, reflecting colors, exacting brush strokes, and blending of paint.  Just one such example was found on page 128:
....He wiped his narrow brush clean, whitened some Naples yellow and licked up a dab of ocher already mixed, then blotted it on a rag.  The sun reflected off Antonio's cream-colored jacket in pale yellow highlights.  He dry-brushed them in on his shoulder, his collar, down his arm.  The same color warmed Alphonsine's back.  He made long, gentle strokes, imagining that he was stroking her bare back.
I also enjoyed the way the author presented all the arts as working together to depict life and human nature at its core.  Visual arts such as sculpture and painting, performing arts such as drama and dance, and literary arts such as narratives and poetry each have a unique way of presenting truth and when combined can add depth and enrichment to the audience's enjoyment.  One such example (found on page 187) is referring to poetry:
....These were les Symbolistes.  A mood was more important than a clear meaning.  But I can tell you the feeling they gave me.  They made me keenly conscious of mystery in life....
...I'll explain as well as I can.  It has to do with a concrete thing suggesting an abstract idea to the writer personally.  Think of x equals y and y equals z.  Mallarme only writes x and leaves us to discover the z.  He said that to name something outright takes away much of the enjoyment of the poem, which comes from guessing the mystery....
....Can it be this?  Those Sunday strollers on the promenade down there with their top hats, x, make me think of a hat shop, y, that hat shop puts me in the mood of sadness, z?
Yes, even though for others it might suggest a happy occasion, buying a new hat.  That's what makes Symboliste poets so difficult in their personal associations, but the words and images you use to describe that hat shop will convey the feeling."
But just a few pages later (page 198) the same thought process is used to describe Renoir's painting: can't deny people's interpretations just because you say there is no story....Something's going on everywhere in the painting too. There will be mysteries to people looking at your painting, but they'll bring their own feelings to it, and will imagine they know something.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of literature and plan to re-read in the near future to help me hone my own craft, I must say that I am even more impressed by the author herself.  Her website is a treasure trove of information for anyone seeking further enhancement of this time period or reading pleasure from this novel.  The bibliography page for this one novel alone not only lists several biographies of Renoir, but also Caillbotte, Bazille, and non-fiction books on art in general.  She did an inordinate amount of research on this time period in Paris as well as France as a whole.  She not only studied art if the mid 19th century, but she also read several novels and short stories that were also written during this time.  Her meticulous attention to detail in the story  bears testimony to this behind the scenes work.

The website also provides discussion questions for book clubs and teacher guides for educators.  There are many suggestions for the classroom that I would like to try myself, for example:
For one week, play the role of a flâneur (see glossary on website; male social observer) or a flâneuse (female social observer) and select one, two, or three items which you consider representative of this time period. Record your observations in detail, choosing words that both describe precisely and reveal your attitude toward the thing observed. End with a comment on how this observation reflects modernity as you see it. 
Of particular interest to me is the webpage that shows an illustration of each painting mentioned in the book with a link to the quoted passage.  This will prove invaluable to me and my self-taught lessons on ekphrasis!

All in all I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and think that it might even qualify for the Paris in July challenge), but I am most thrilled to have met an author that will not only help me improve as a writer, but who also inspires me!


  1. review makes me want to dig this one out from my shelves. The writing seems lovely. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. This is such an interesting post - thank you indeed for sharing. I love literature that tries to dig below the surface of art etc. This sounds like a goody.

    thanks indeed

  3. I picked this one up at Books-a-Million awhile ago but haven't read it yet. I'm so glad you liked it!

  4. It sounds like you found a treasure trove all in one book. What a wonderful review.

  5. It sounds like this book really inspired you to new heights. That's fantastic! Wonderful review, Molly - just made me want this book right now. Have a great week and happy reading!

  6. I love historical fiction! This one sounds like a winner. Thanks for sharing some of the details (the 13 people and who they were, for example).

  7. Not only does your review make me want to read the book, I can feel your excitement and enthusiasm for writing, too!

  8. The book sounds fabulous to me since I love that painting so much. I'm sure I couldn't read it like a writer, though.

  9. Molly, you are positively GLOWING through this review. It seems you have found your niche. I can't wait for you to get started on your book!

  10. I bought this on a discount table last year, and after such an amazing review, I think I may need to sneak it into my summer reading list! Thanks!

  11. What a thoughtful review. I hadn't heard of this book until now, and you've made it sound so good. I'll keep it in mind.

  12. I've seen this book in quite a few places and always wondered if it was worth the read....based on your review, I do think it is, especially because I do love the Impressionists so.


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