The International Writers Magazine: Book Review
By Susan Vreeland
Publisher: Viking - Jan 2005
A Gemma Williams Review
and skilfully crafted, Susan Vreelands collection of seventeen
stories in "Life Studies" explores the effect and meaning
art can have on humanity. This is not a dry exploration of "art"
meaning exquisite paintings that only a few specialists can truly
appreciate, but "art" meaning the beauty that surrounds
us, and its profound, and often surprising effect on us mere
The first eight
stories are structured around biographical incidents in the lives of
such artists as Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Berthe and Cézanne;
but instead of what could have been a tedious look at the lives of the
great painters, Vreelands focus is on those characters usually
in the background. The reader is shown the importance of art, not through
the eyes of the great painters but through the observant eyes of a gardener,
a wet nurse, a butcher's child, a banker, and a daughter.
The enchanting "Mimi with a Watering Can" shows a disillusioned
man reawaken his enthusiasm for life when he sees Renoirs captivating
depiction of his daughter, while in "A Flower for Ginette"
Monet's gardener watches in horror as he burns his water lily paintings,
and steals a single picture for his wife before understanding Monets
quest for perfection and destroying it also. In "Of These Stones"
a young boy is caught throwing stones at Cezanne because he thinks him
insane, his punishment is to build up a wall in the artists garden,
which he comes to look forward to, and he learns the joy of expression
and the gift empathy.
Separated by an enchanting travel tale, the remaining stories stand
in contrast to the
historical nature of those at the beginning of the collection, and revolve
around ordinary people who are profoundly influenced by exposure to
art and creativity. These contemporary stories link the past with the
present, bringing the lessons we are taught about the worth of art into
the world of today through the eyes of a teacher, a construction worker,
and an orphan and more.
In "Crayon" a young girl learns to deal with her Grandfathers
death with an appreciation of art and beauty, which he had always urged
her to see, when introduced to pre-Columbian figures and Picasso's paintings.
In "Respond" a neglected wife poses nude for an art class
and re-awakens her self-worth and compassion. Also among the cast of
contemporary characters is a mute girl who draws profiles of passengers
on a bus, whose painting is taken as a gift to a mans wife in
prison in "Gifts" and a school boy who, knowing nothing about
Matisse, draws a blue nude that refuses to be erased, and ends up teaching
the teacher a lesson about empathy in "Their Lady Tristeza".
While one or two of the stories seem stretched, the artistic focus sometimes
over emphasised, this collection as a whole is a tender, compassionate
look at humanity and the way art effects us in everyday life, as well
as suggestion that a life with a creative focus is a life more worth
The warmth and humanity of Vreelands exploration makes even the
least artistic among us think twice, Im not saying Im off
to paint a masterpiece, or anything for that matter; but I just might
look twice at the way the sunlight catches that flower
© Gemma Williams March 2005
Gemma is the new assistant editor on Hackwriters and studies Creative
Writing at Portsmouth University
all rights reserved