Click here to read reviewer Karyn Johnson's take on Life Studies: Stories.
In Life Studies: Stories, Vreeland dips her pen into the palette of great art in search of human drama, much like Tracy Chevalier, another author who plies this resource for inspiration. Art is an apt choice, for this novel is filled with life, an emotional canvas as rich and varied as humanity itself. Instead of the tackling the obvious subjects, the artists themselves, Vreeland writes from the point of view of their contemporaries, the people who live with the genius of creativity, fleshing out the lives of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, their lovers, children, neighbors and servants. As observers, these characters enjoy an intimate knowledge of the daily struggles to create versus the need to provide for families and how their behavior affects those around them.
In 1876 France, we enjoy a fly-on-the-wall view of Renoir, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Modigliani. When Claude Monet's wife dies ("Winter of Abandon"), the artist, his children and those of his mistress are stranded in the harsh winter. Inviting scandal by staying with the newly widowed Monet, his mistress puts her family name at risk. The couple realizes she must reclaim her good name by the spring, for her children's sake; meanwhile they cling to a world isolated from reality.
The days are often fraught with emotion for the wet nurse of the baby of Berthe and Eugene Manet ("Cradle Song"), living apart from her own newborn infant, though she thinks of him constantly. Her own child dies while she is still in service, and the Manetís are blithely unaware of the heartbreak of their servant's life, fixating on their own obsessions, including Berthe's attraction to her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet. And in "Olympia's Look", Suzanne Manet, widow of Edouard, enjoys the revenge of a lifetime.
Walking the streets of Arles, Van Gogh stares raptly at the wonder of nature's colors. Later, Van Gogh ("The Yellow Jacket") warns his subject, "You can ruin yourself in the night cafes", where the absinthe flows freely and muddles the senses. In the very tale, "A Flower for Ginette," the author's descriptions evoke images of the great Impressionist paintings, made more real by the people that inhabit them.
Separated from the historical by an enchanting, almost-fairy tale, the second half of the book consists of more contemporary stories, people who live in the real world and their relationships to great art. Here we watch the unfolding of the small intimacies that transcend the years since the Impressionists enjoyed their most prolific era, linking genius to humanity. Vreeland is at her most confident when speaking in the language of the artist, shaping images into words, painting believable portraits to engage the curiosity of her readers. "All art is a matter of reception."