Tag Archives: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

Paintings in Four Novels

Every novel I read for a brief period recently seemed to contain references to paintings, were about eminent painters, or were inspired by particular paintings, or the plot turned on the art of the painting. Here is a selection of four, beginning with the best!

  1. How to be both by Ali Smith (2014)

160 How to be bothThis was one of my best reads of the last 12 months: judges of many prizes agreed, including Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize which it won in June this year. This novel draws on fresco painting techniques in its layering of stories, and in its exploration of ambiguity. The paintings are the frescoes in Ferrara, and in the National Gallery, St Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa.

You can read my review about the novel from March 2015 here.

  1. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)

190 Girl with coverThis book was a best seller, not least because of the film adaptation. The book tells the story of a servant girl, Griet, and the picture painted of her by the great Dutch painter – Johannes Vermeer. It is narrated in the voice of Griet, who is unfamiliar with the world of the artist, but learns how to mix his paints, pose for him and eventually to loose her innocence through her relationship with the painter.

Tracy Chevalier has made a speciality of highly researched historical fiction. The insights into the Delft household, and Dutch society in the seventeenth century are among the attractive details of this novel. Vermeer has become very popular since the book was published. Here is a picture of the crowd around another of his paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Girl with a Pearl Earring is in The Hague in the Mauritshuis.

190 Vermeer crush

  1. Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (first published 1997)

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black

142 R's whoreThis is novel also takes its inspiration from a Dutch artist. But it was written in French. As the title suggests, Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s housekeeper, is condemned by the Calvinist citizens of Amsterdam. She tells her story from her arrival in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, to the moment she dies of plague, after having given birth to a daughter.

The theme is the valuing of art and love over dogma and narrow-mindedness. The novel drew me into the life of Amsterdam and its people, as you can read in the longer review in December 2014, one of a group of novels I reviewed that were situated in Amsterdam.

  1. Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)

190 SUmmer in F coverThis novel draws, not from a single painting, but on a group of artists who congregated in Cornwall before the First World War. They were real people.

It concerns a love triangle. The larger-than-life figure – all performance and attention demanding – is AJ Munnings, who later as Sir Alfred Munnings became President of the Royal Academy. His rival in love is Captain Evans a rather staid, but open young man. The men are portrayed as complete opposites, but friends. The object of their affections is Florence Carter Ward. Florence’s character really irritated me: a fatally attractive woman, men are unable to resist her. She was the subject of Munning’s painting, Morning Ride, sold for nearly half a million pounds at Christies in 2000.

Florence married Munnings, and the story follows them until the tragic ending of the unhappy triangle. Was this novel more than a love story? Was it anything to do with painting? What was the influence of love on painting and of painting on the novel? And what was the role of that other artist Dame Laura Knight?

Of the four novels referred to in this post, this was the least convincing to me. But it is interesting how novelists use painting and painters in their writing.

What novels have you read that are influenced by painting or painters?

Related posts

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Amsterdam Stories

 

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s novels gives me the same feeling as when I hear Knoxville, Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. Both are very American and strongly evocative of ordinary urban life. As with Barber’s piece it is easy to get into a novel by Anne Tyler, but as you progress you are challenged. She presents you with surprises and with people acting like real people – not like stereotyped heroes and heroines. They have foibles, grief, whims, traits that make them recognisable and interesting.

186 Spool coverA Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel and continues her exploration of families. She has said she wants to know ‘how they grate along’ because people are forced together in families. In this novel she explores how families define themselves, creating their versions of themselves and how this changes over time.

The story

Set in Baltimore again, A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshanks and their four children. We meet Red (a builder) and Abby (a social worker and former hippy) in 1994 and follow them into old age where their children must respond to their ageing. The story shifts in Part Two to focus on the previous generation of Whitshanks and how they came to Baltimore. It emerges that the origins of both Junior and Linnie are obscured from their children and grandchildren. It is not clear whether they were even married.

In A Spool of Blue Thread Abby is a central figure. She is prone to invite lame ducks to a meal and forget about the invitation. She is generous and has opened her family to non-blood relatives.

Central to the story is the house that Junior Whitshank built and bought off its first owner, then passed to Red, becoming the home of the second generation.

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like. (57)

The story ends as the house is emptied and the third generation move away from its orbit.

Why read A Spool of Blue Thread?

In every novel Anne Tyler creates characters of great charm and frustration. Who can forget the flawed Macon in The Accidental Tourist. He writes travel books and hates travel. His family store their groceries alphabetically. These are not romantic heroes and heroines and yet they love, suffer and make their lives as all of us do.

Anne Tyler has said that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

The novel explores how families shape themselves. Here are some of the ways in which the Whitshanks do it:

  • Through their responses to the wayward child, Denny, who sabotages much family activity, absents himself from the family, flits back occasionally, tells them nothing of his life.
  • The family’s retold two myths – how the house came to be in the possession of the Whitshanks and how Red’s sister’s dishonestly and manipulatively campaigned to marry a rich man.
  • What the members of the family tell each other and what they withhold.
  • How the family respond to ageing parents, and the assumptions they make about their need for care and about who should do this and how.
  • The resentful relationships between the siblings and how these are only revealed in crises.
  • How the family’s rituals define them, for example their annual holiday at the Beach and Christmas.
  • How they cope and don’t cope when they are all squashed together in the house.
  • How they respond to the death of one of the family.

Amanda the lawyer gives her brother Denny a piece of her mind on one occasion, and we learn a truth about this wayward son. She spoke on the phone to him, in front of their mother, Abby.

“But do you know something, Denny? Don’t count on me to take you in, because I’m angry, I’m angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad’s thirtieth anniversary and thirty-fifth and Jeannine’s baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well. But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.”

She stopped speaking. Denny said something.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m fine. How have you been?” (32-33)

The scene shifts and the next paragraph beings: So Denny came home. The humour, letting us down after one of the most emotional scenes, and the delivery of the home truth to Abby is typical of Anne Tyler’s writing, and of how she shows the relationships in this family.

There is no great denouement although Denny appears to be making a bid for a better life in the final scenes. We have been privileged to witness a family, any family, make its way through difficult times, from the Depression to the present day, and how each family member plays a part in shaping and defining the family while also being constrained by the collective ideas they hold.

And the reader has witnessed this through the eyes of a writer with great charm and humour and a gift for the detail. There is a link to Knoxville in the prominent role of the porch seat in the novel and which you can hear swinging gently at the opening of Barber’s piece.

Reading Anne Tyler

I have read (or reread) a novel by Anne Tyler every two years, my reading record shows.

Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass
(2009)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)

Anne Tyler's novels on my bookshelves

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (2015) Chatto & Windus 358 pp

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

My copy was a gift from Kim, through her blog Reading Matters. Many thanks to Kim, I enjoyed it as I knew I would! The link takes you to her review.

 

Related posts:

An Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Shortlisted for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2015

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’

 

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Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction Shortlist 2015

BWPFF 2015 logoAnnounced on Monday 13th April 2015, here is the shortlist for the Baileys Prize.

  • Rachel Cusk: Outline
  • Laline Paull: The Bees
  • Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
  • Ali Smith: How to be Both
  • Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

160 How to be bothThe winner will be announced on Wednesday 3rd June.

These books were on the longlist:

  • Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
  • Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
  • Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
  • Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
  • Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
  • Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
  • Grace McCleen: The Offering
  • Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
  • Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
  • Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
  • Sara Taylor: The Shore
  • Jemma Wayne: After Before
  • PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

151 E missiing cover 3

And here’s the shadow shortlist from The Writes of Women blog:

  • Samantha Harvey    Dear Thief
  • Sandra Newman      Ice Cream Star
  • Ali Smith                    How to be Both
  • Sara Taylor                The Shore
  • Anne Tyler                A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters           The Paying Guests

 

Never mind the winner, here’s lots of lovely reading for us all!

 

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