Monday, May 2, 2011

How Much Will You Give Me?

When I started reading Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, I was expecting to compare it to Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriett Scott Chessman.  However, in the first chapter, I realized that Hyacinth was the story of the owners of a picture as opposed to the story of the creating of a painting.  This led me to hope for something like Great House by Nicole Krauss or People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

Great House is the story of a many-drawered desk that was owned by a series of writers through decades, with very little obvious connection.  People of the Book is the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah that passed through the hands of unrelated people of varying faiths through centuries.  Compared to the others, I found Hyacinth lacking.  In Hyacinth, the numerous owners of the painting all recognized that it was beautiful, said that they loved it, and then all converted the painting to cash.  To me, it read a little like the story of a dollar bill. 

In Great House, the desk figured in the story, but was not the very meaning of any of the individual stories.  It was a cherished, appreciated piece of furniture, and it passed hands through generosity and trust, but never for money.  In POTB, the Haggadah was considered precious, and was guarded, but was actually more of a liability than an asset in most of the eras in which it existed.  If it had been discovered, it would have been destroyed, and its owner may have been killed.  It was also interesting that each owner put his or her own mark on the Haggadah while owing it.

It seemed simplistic that every owner  in Hyacinth recognized the painting as valuable, and sold it or gave it away to relieve an obligation.  It wouldn't have been much of a stretch for an angry wife to throw the painting away, and then for some lucky person to find it in the trash, love it, and then keep it until giving it to a favorite niece for a wedding present.  The only time it even passed through a will was when the owner knew that it was a recognizable piece of stolen art, and that he would be arrested for trying to sell it.

It also surprised me that Vreeland would invent an unknown Vermeer.  In other (fictional) books that I have read, there have actually been questions about whether Vermeer painted all of the works for which he has credit, rather than claiming that he may have painted even more.

One thing that Great House, People of the Book, and Girl in Hyacinth Blue all have in common is that the prized possession changed hands during the Holocaust.  There had to have been other ways to lose family heirlooms in the 1940s.  In Hyacinth's defense, it was written before the other two, and couldn't have copied their device.  In Great House, the Jewish faith played a key role in the stories, so the Holocaust was obvious as a reason for the transfer of treasures.  The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah in People of the Book  is based on truth, and in that case, the story of its possession (but not its ownership) during the Holocaust is unavoidable.

Next up on CD:  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Still reading:  Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.  Don't rush me!

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