Novel within a Novel: New book by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
by Sena Jeter Naslund
September 17, 2013
434 pages
ISBN-10: 0061579327
ISBN-13: 978-0061579325
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

I finished an advanced reader’s edition of the above book that is a novel within a novel, hence the title. My trend continues for being drawn towards reading a southern, female author whose protagonist is from the modern day. The story of the protagonist is intertwined with a character from the past whose own story also unfolds for readers to compare and contrast with the modern one. Readers are given the opportunity to follow 70-year-old Kathryn, a writer, as she lives through an entire day after having completed a novel. Kathryn’s story is juxtaposed with that of real life painter Élizabeth Vigée-le Brun (1742-1855), portrait artist of Marie Antoinette. 
Many juxtapositions exist between the two fascinating characters. The foremost is that while readers follow the complete full day of Kathyrn’s after her work is completed, we follow Elizabeth’s story throughout her entire life. Both artists have only one child, Kathryn a son and Elizabeth a daughter. Both characters have mothers they are extraordinarily close to but Kathryn’s mother is with her most of her life, while Elizabeth travels Europe to escape the revolution and is forced to leave her mother behind. Kathryn is thrice divorced and Elizabeth is married only once in her long life. When writing about Kathryn, or the “Fountain” chapters, readers also get some narration from some of Kathryn’s friends and acquaintances, including a little girl who was playing “hooky.” Elizabeth, from the “Portrait” chapters, is the only narrator in her story. 
I enjoyed being in the mind of Kathryn as she reflected on her marriages and on the lives and deaths of her many friends. I also enjoyed Ms. Naslund’s musings on what Elizabeth might have experienced as a commoner in Paris whose extraordinary talent puts her in the company of royalty and so many talented artists of the day. 

-Sena Jeter Naslund

Ms. Naslund’s descriptive writing was delightful, from the residences both characters lived in to the other characters in whom the two ladies interacted, as well as descriptions of the artistic musings of Elizabeth as she matures as a painter. This book within a book is very rich in characters, relationships, and, especially, art. I really enjoyed the Portrait chapters more than the modern day Kathryn, probably because of all of the references to drawing, painting, color, perspective, and sketching. I knew nothing of this famous female artist and learned much. Ms. Naslund presents her as a loving, caring daughter, sister, mother, and friend. She is someone that one would want to be acquainted with, no matter her station in life. I enjoyed looking at Elizabeth’s paintings online to become more familiar with her work.

The criticism that I have for this book is that almost all of the male characters are not as developed and as interesting as the female friends and relatives of the two main characters. But then again, most of the male characters are exes of Kathryn and since Elizabeth lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, most of those men were definitely put in historical context of the times. Elizabeth’s father (a character I liked) and her husband were both philanderers. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the Comte de Vaudreuil and why Elizabeth admired him more than so many others. I also tired of the story of Kathryn’s gay son’s ex-lover who was stalking her. But these criticisms did not impede much my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Following is a passage showing Elizabeth’s outlook and how she copes with what life hands her:

“Unlike proximity to my stepfather, it is no burden to be in the presence of M. Le Brun. He has an obliging nature. Not only is he pleasant, he is in fact kind (if one makes exception for his gambling and philandering, and the subsequent disillusionment). His manner and indeed his nature are a mixture of sweetness and gaiety. I refuse to hurt myself by harboring either bitter disappointment or low jealousy. I vow to appreciate what is best in him, and to give myself to the good pleasures with him and with witty and charming friends, to the theater, to conversation, to music, to nature, and above all to art.”

Oh, and one last comment: As with a large percentage of books concerning writing and writers there are usually references to Hemingway, two that I distinctly remember in this particular novel. The first was as follows: “But did anyone want to read about an old woman? About an artist, living or dead? Of course Ernest Hemingway had managed very well with his short tale The Old Man and the Sea.” The second was: “The sinking of the sun was a hard time for all fish, Hemingway had written in The Old Man and the Sea.”

Some historical figures included:

  Madame du Barry
  Joseph Vernet
  Comte de Vaudreuil
  Countesse de Polignac

Words I looked up:

  baize-an often bright-green cotton or woolen material napped to imitate felt and used chiefly as a cover for gaming tables
  wimpling-draping wound around the head, framing the face, and drawn into folds beneath the chin, worn by women in medieval times and as part of the habit of certain orders of nuns
  rondelle-a rounded or circular object
  persipacious-of acute mental vision or discernment; keen
  stentorian-very loud
  whorl-a pattern that is made by a series of circles that turn around a center point
  sarabande-a stately court dance of the 17th and 18th centuries, in slow triple time
  sward-a portion of ground covered with grass
  liminal-of or relating to a sensory threshold

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Louise Élisabeth Vigée-le Brun, after 1782,
oil on canvas, 38.5 × 27.8 in., National Gallery, London
Previous and future stops for this book blog tour can be found HERE.
Ms. Naslund’s FB page can be found HERE.

  2 comments for “Novel within a Novel: New book by Sena Jeter Naslund

  1. September 28, 2013 at 2:57 AM

    Looks like you learned a few great new words in this book!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  2. September 28, 2013 at 7:05 PM

    You’re welcome! It was my kind of book, for sure. MDC

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