Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman by Sena Jeter Naslund

Do you ever wonder about artists, writers, musicians? Where do they find inspiration?  What keeps them producing wondrous works year after year?  How do they continually find inspiration in the ordinary world even as they go about their usual lives? What sparks creation? In Sena Jeter Naslund's newest novel, The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, she addresses these questions through fictional creation and modern day writer, Kathryn Callaghan, and a fictionalization of the life of celebrated French portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, friend and artist to Marie Antoinette.

The novel opens just after midnight with Kathryn cradling the just finished first draft of her novel about Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun to her chest as she crosses from her stately home on St. James Court, past the murmuring fountain in the middle of the court to her long-time good friend Leslie's new home, with the intention of leaving her new creation at Leslie's door. She is caught in the pride, perfection, and slight melancholy of having finished her latest work. And as she makes her way through the quiet and the dark, she reflects on the things in her past that have led to this moment of initial completion.

Alternating with Kathryn's story is the slight novel she's written about the famous artist. Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun's passionate and artistic eye was encouraged from a young age and she became a very successful artist at a stunningly young age, entertaining and painting many from the French aristocracy. She was a devoted daughter, cleaving tightly to her mother and her brother after the untimely and devastating death of her father. She became a loyal wife to a challenging husband and a loving and permissive mother to her small daughter, Julie even as she persevered in her art, learning and growing and blossoming as an artist.

Alternating between the two women's stories, the style of narration is quite different in the Fountain sections (Kathryn's) and the Portrait sections (Elisabeth's). Kathryn's story takes place over the course of one long day only and is very stream of consciousness. Moments of her day inspire her to reflect on her past, her three failed marriages, her son and his menacing former lover, and her friends. She looks around her at the beauty of the changing season and paints the place around her in words, her home with its furnishings, her yard and trees, and, of course, the background music of the fountain. She moves through her day in an unhurried, contemplative sort of way, wondering if a man she's interested in will in fact come to visit her as he's promised or if the promise of the day is already fulfilled enough by her finishing her manuscript. The sections centered on Elisabeth, the novel within a novel, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, that Kathryn has written present most of Vigee-Le Brun's life from childhood, through her success as a painter and her escape from the horrors of the French Revolution, to her eventual return to France as an old woman immersed in the bucolic peace of her country home and the memories of her long life, her continued delight in light and painting, and her sorrowful love for her daughter.

Both narratives are first person but those centered on Kathryn as she goes about her day are much more wandering and divergent than the more controlled, traditional sections centered on Elisabeth.  Each woman speaks of the things that inspire her, the ways in which art, painted or written, is such a part of herself that she cannot abandon it no matter what is happening in her life or in the world around her, the way it saves her very concept of herself. Naslund has written beautifully and very visually in both sections of this character driven novel. The writing is considered and exquisite but somehow uneven in these two tales of artistic women growing older and reflecting on their pasts. The story of Elisabeth is fascinating but feels as if it skims lightly over so much while the meandering, stream of consciousness narration of the Kathryn portions doesn't really serve to help the reader know her as intimately as such a technique would suggest. Naslund is a gorgeous writer but these two narratives don't weave together in equal measure despite their similarity in theme and so the reader will favor one character over another, rushing through one piece of the story to get back to the other. Stunning imagery and interesting themes but a bit of a flat affect.

For more information about Sena Jeter Naslund and the book, find her on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. But I almost always find that to be the case in a dual-narrative story. No matter how well they mesh I always prefer one and rush through the other part to get back to it.

  2. I haven't read anything by this author but I've noticed that she seems to bring out strong feelings in her readers.

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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