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The International Writers Magazine
: Book Review

"Life Studies"
By Susan Vreeland
ISBN: 0-670-03177-1
Publisher: Viking - Jan 2005
A Gemma Williams Review

Delicately, and skilfully crafted, Susan Vreeland’s 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 mortals’!

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, Vreeland’s 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 Renoir’s 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 Monet’s 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 artist’s 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 Grandfather’s 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 man’s 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 while.
The warmth and humanity of Vreeland’s exploration makes even the least artistic among us think twice, I’m not saying I’m 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

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