This was the first book I’ve read by Susan Vreeland, but this, her latest novel, is just one of a large pantheon of works by her and other authors that might be called “fictionalized history.” A specific historical person or event is borrowed and a fictionalized tale is woven around it and what is known about it through historical records. One could argue that “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” started this, but many others have followed.
In this case, the historical person of record is Clara Driscoll. Until very recently, no one knew her name. But through the discovery of her correspondence with family, it was learned that she and the other women who worked in the factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany were largely responsible for the design and manufacture of the stained-glass lampshades for which Tiffany became so famous, and which are the most enduring and well-known legacy of his studio. Vreeland spins a meandering, episodic tale of about fifteen years of Clara’s life, from the time she was first widowed through her second marriage, between which she worked for Tiffany (who refused to employ married women). The book doesn’t have a clear plot arc, rather it unfolds in a series of episodes and happenings in the life of Clara and the cornucopia of colorful people that fill her life.
Too many people, actually. The book suffers from character overpopulation, especially where Clara’s Women’s Department is concerned. So many girls and women pass through her department that it’s hard to keep them straight or even develop any attachment to any of them. The men in her life (of whom there are quite a few as well) are given more development. Vreeland hits us with too many people right up front as Clara moves into the boardinghouse where she was to live for fifteen years. A few people stick out, including the trio of gay artists Clara befriends and the stoic Englishman who seems at once kindly and mysterious, but my head was spinning with a few too many new names. Less breadth and more depth might have better served the narrative.
Clara is a very appealing first-person narrator. Casual, conversational, just self-aware enough so as not to be annoying but still blithely sallying forth when we can see her flaws. She spouts off a few too many monologues and speeches, and the book also contains just a little too much description of the genesis of each lamp idea from flowers or gardens or aquariums. They become repetitious. Also, it seems that no man, gay or straight, can help but fall in love with Clara despite her age (relatively advanced for a single woman of that time) and her self-described plainness.
This was one of those books where I could really see the strings. Captain Exposition helpfully drops in from time to time to info-dump us into submission, and Vreeland has an annoying fondness for name-dropping prominent events and people of the time. Witness the scene in which Clara and two of her girls are having lunch and Clara points out a writer at a nearby table who has absolutely nothing to do with anything just so she can say “You know, he goes by O. Henry!” It’s the literary equivalent of that “This Picasso guy will never amount to anything” scene in “Titanic.” Pointless but for us all to give a chuckle at the historical irony.
And yet I really enjoyed the book despite the fact that I’m picking it apart. I felt connected to Clara, if less so than to anybody else in the story, and I cared about what was happening to her. I wanted to find out what would happen next. So what else is important?