Thursday, October 6, 2011

Clara and (her boss) Mr Tiffany

This book first caught my eye at a closing-out Borders store, where it was on a big display at the front of the store. As I stood in line (I know Alice thinks anyone who buys books at a closing-out Borders is a chump but I had good reasons both times) I thought how sad I'd be if I were the author of a book so prominently displayed in a dying store. Also I thought about how pretty the cover is:
Because we are nerds, my family did not go to Disney World etc during our recent trip to Orlando, but we did visit the Morse Museum in Winter Park. I don't really understand why the Morse Museum of American Art is called that because really its focus is an extensive collection of Tiffany stained glass (and related items) collected by a couple by the name of McKean. Anyway, naming complexities aside, it's a very nice museum and I enjoyed it a lot. I had never seen Tiffany windows up close before, and I hadn't realized that they have the most beautiful, complex textures. Many of the windows have big chunks of glass in them or multiple layers of glass bolted together. If they had allowed photos I would have taken one at an angle to show you. Anyway, I saw Clara and Mr Tiffany in the giftshop, which reminded me of it, so that when I needed a test subject for the library's Overdrive/Kindle service, this is what I downloaded.

In the afterword (or the acknowledgments or somesuch) Vreeland explains that the main character, Clara Driscoll, was a real person, and that the book was inspired by an exhibit at the pretentiously hyphenated New-York Historical Society about the women workers at Tiffany Studios. Driscoll worked for Tiffany before her marriage, and at the beginning of the book, she is returning to work after her husband's death.
I opened the beveled-glass door under the sign announcing Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in ornate bronze. A new sign with a new name. Fine. I felt new too.
It is a cliche of writing advice that you ought to have a really good first sentence. These are conspicuously good first sentences, if you ask me, and so I am calling them to your attention.

Having opened the door and felt new, Driscoll goes in and meets with Louis Comfort Tiffany, seeing his current projects and asking for her job back. And then, in their first meeting, mind you, this happens:
I was struck by a tantalizing idea. "Imagine it reduced in size and made of translucent glass instead. Once you figure how to secure the pieces in a dome, that could be the method and the shape of a lampshade. A wraparound window of say--" I looked around the room--"peacock feathers." He jerked his head up with a startled expression, the idea dawning on him as if it were his own. "Lampshades in leaded glass," he said in wonder, his blue eye sparking. "Just think where that could go," I whispered.
Yes, that's right, folks, that just happened. Argh, seriously, I thought to myself as I read this. In the afterword or acknowledgments or whatever at the end of the book, Vreeland explains that among specialists, there is a theory that Clara Driscoll was actually the inventor of the Tiffany lamp, and she (the author) chose to adopt that theory in writing the novel.

Now, let me be clear: I have no beef with the theory that Driscoll rather than Tiffany came up with the lamp idea. It gives Vreeland some very, very interesting themes to do with creativity, attribution, etc, through the rest of the book. However, I find that particular little eureka paragraph really hamfisted. At the very least, I think it's a mistake to introduce this before we've seen Clara in action. The reader doesn't know yet that she's a skilled and experienced craftswoman; she just waltzes in and drops a bomb. It's annoying.

In fact, my major beef with this book was the handling of the History. There was a lot of stuff shoehorned in, sometimes as awkward exposition, and sometimes for period flavor (I guess):
"There are a few things I know that might explain his behavior. I've been researching his family history for an article to come out during the Chicago Fair." "Please, tell me everything."
"You're not going to be here for New Year's Eve? The big celebration of the consolidation of the boroughs at City Hall Park?" He hesitated on the brink of agreeing, so I went on. "Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx all one city, the second largest in the world." 
He asked, "Do you know this poem? Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free [...] A woman named Emma Lazarus wrote that poem as a donation to an auction to help fund the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It's not well know, but I believe someday it will be.
"Someday, when women are considered equal to men, it will become known that a woman of great importance created those lamps. This isn't the Middle Ages, Clara. You will not be lost to history like the makers of those medieval windows in Gloucester are. Someone will find you."
How prescient! This stuff, along with the name-checking of basically every super-famous person, song, work of art, etc, of the period, is on just about every page. The clippings file on my Kindle is overflowing with it.

Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but it's like if, instead of having a set and costumes, the actors just came and smacked you in the head and said "We're in the past, ok!" If good historical novels evoke the ambiance of an era, this one is full of old-fashioned London "pea soup" fog.

There's also a bonkers, bat-shit crazy romantic plot that I can hardly even tell you about. I just sort of decided to forget about it after it happened, but it did involve some deeply anachronistic attitudes and deeply terrible dialogue about sex. E.g:
"I'd like to work on your lower east side. Do you think we would both feel tingly? We might both find cause for applause."

All of this is a real shame, because (what ought to be) the core of the book, the story of women workers in the arts and particularly Clara Driscoll is fascinating stuff. The book encompasses both Driscoll's developing attitudes toward her own work and the emerging women's labor movement. This is a good story, and I enjoyed it even as I was highlighting some awful obvious piece of CONTEXT HELLO THIS IS SOME HISTORY on every other page.

If I'd been the editor, I would have put in a little historical introduction up front to inform the reader that Driscoll was a real person, which is, after all what makes it interesting. And secondly I would have cut this book waaaaay down. There was no need to shoehorn in the contents of the Dictionary of Turn-of-the-Century America. "Women working in the arts" is more than sufficiently interesting.


  1. "Someone will find you." OMG LIKE SUSAN VREELAND. What a clever lady she is.

    I would like to point out that you used "shoehorned" and "hamfisted." I don't know what you've been reading (other than this), but I approve it.

    "It's not well known, but I believe someday it will be."

    That makes me want to die. It's like in Titanic when Rose is all "I appreciate Picasso and therefore the audience should like me more because I have good taste that transcends what's in vogue." Booooooo cheap trick.

    Also that's RIGHT I think those people are chumps. Not that I would've mentioned it again. And, of course, I would assume you had a good reason for going there. *coughs*

  2. There was that Scott Bakula Star Trek prequel TV series. One of the episodes was set up as the episode where the crew would grapple with the question of whether to interfere with an alien culture. And Bakula has this line like, "it's so hard to know what to do! If only there were a... directive... of some kind. Like... a Prime Directive." THAT is (a) the worst, and (b) what I kept thinking about w/r/t this book, but the reference is really much too nerdy for public consumption.

    Also, there was this: "I stayed with my aunt for a while, but she got to tattling to my mother, so I moved in with some girls who work at the big Triangle Shirtwaist Factory." OH NOOOO

  3. Ahahahaha you watched Enterprise. Booooo.

    I had to look up w/r/t, but now I feel more culturally literate.

    Ah, Triangle Factory reference. Adding in more angst. Another cheap shot, Vreeland.