Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson
The extended title of The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman reflects its structure: a novel within a novel that depicts a day in the life of a present-day writer and the text of the novel she has just finished, narrated by the eighteenth-century French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Chapters alternate between the writer's and the painter's stories.
Élizabeth Vigée-Le Brun became a highly successful portrait painter during the years before the French Revolution. She painted Marie Antoinette so many times that the public viewed as her as the queen's official portraitist, and she had to flee France during the Revolution, though she returned after Napoleon became emperor. Her paintings may appear conventional to us today, but some of them, such as a portrait of Marie Antoinette in a loose, flowing white gown, were considered scandalous innovations in her own time. Naslund suggests that she prefigured the Impressionists. That may be going too far, but her paintings do show a love of light and the interplay between light and shadow.
Naslund's writing has been compared to Virginia Woolf's, and Woolf and James Joyce are strong influences on this novel: both are directly mentioned as inspirations for the fictional novelist, Kathryn Callaghan. Her portrait of Vigée-Le Brun as an old woman reflecting on her memories is meant to contrast with Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, echoing Kathryn's preoccupations as a woman on the brink of seventy: a series of failed marriages, a new physical frailty, and concern for her son. Like Woolf, Naslund focuses primarily on her characters' interior lives, except for a thriller-like ending to Kathryn's story that picks up the pace but feels inconsistent with the novel's overall style. Lovers of historical novels may not be the only readers who prefer Vigée-Le Brun's more expansive story, with the rich descriptions of her many paintings. (2013, 431 pages)More about The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman at Powell's Books or Amazon.com