Friday, October 14, 2011

A Review of Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

By Kim

Synopsis of Clara and Mr. Tiffany: (from the book jacket) 

Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color.

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women’s division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered.Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.

About Susan Vreeland: (from the book jacket) 

Susan Vreeland is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including Luncheon of the Boating Party, Life Studies, The Passion of Artemisia, The Forest Lover and Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She lives in San Diego.


Rarely have I started a book with such high expectations. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Susan Vreeland, but I consider her a mentor of sorts. She, along with Stephanie Cowell and Jane Urquhart, have shown me the world through an artist’s eyes, a crucial skill considering the novel I’m now writing.

Given that I love art, history, and stories about strong women ahead of their times, I was inclined to love Clara and Mr. Tiffany before I even opened it. When I saw that the story began in New York City in 1892, I admit my heart began to race. This was not just Clara’s world, but my great-grandfather’s. The real Clara Driscoll, while searching at the Art Students' League for suitable girls to hire, may have caught sight of an unusually tall and striking young Canadian painter named Carl Ahrens. She could have met him through Louis Comfort Tiffany, William Merritt Chase or George Inness, all of whom Carl did know, or even George Waldo, whom Carl likely knew. He may have lived in her neighborhood. I couldn’t help but see him there.

High expectations often lead to disappointment, but such was not the case with Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I found the story so engrossing, in fact, that after the first few chapters I contentedly inhabited turn-of-the-century New York without looking for my ancestor around every bend. Those who know me well will understand what a high compliment that is.

Photo by Hannes Grobe
I laughed over the antics at Clara’s boarding house, winced over the living conditions on the Lower East Side, cheered when Clara led the fight against sexism in the workplace, and cried over the death of a character I had come to love almost as much as Clara did. I also admired that Vreeland did not shy away from characters who would have been marginalized or even denounced at the time; poor immigrants, homosexuals, the handicapped. There’s even an interracial marriage. As for Mr. Tiffany, Vreeland neither put him on a pedestal nor denounced him, either of which would have made him rather a cardboard character. She let him be a man, flawed yet endearing, and he jumped off the page.

I have read a few grumbles about the length of time spent explaining the processes of making the famous Tiffany lamps. Some reviewers went so far as to say they felt like they were attending a college lecture. Yes, there’s a lot of detail about glassmaking, selecting, cutting, etc, and occasionally there are awkward bits of dialogue where the characters educate each other (and the reader.) I easily overlooked this because I’m fascinated by artistic processes of any sort. Those readers who aren’t so inclined may find themselves skimming though those parts of the novel.

I will certainly not be able to look at a Tiffany lamp or window again without thinking of Clara Driscoll.

If any of you have read Clara and Mr. Tiffany and would like to share your thoughts, we'd love to hear from you! If you have not, the novel is available at bookstores everywhere.

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