Thursday, March 16, 2017

Stolen Beauty, A Piece of the World, Cooking for Picasso

I not sure what the odds are that I would encounter these three books one after the other in my reading. Serendipitous for sure, especially since all three are set in the same time period and all three use the same literary device of dividing the time periods in two and alternating between them. (Is there a name for this increasingly popular way of telling stories?)

Stolen Beauty

A Piece of the World

Cooking for Picasso

All three novels are historical, each featuring an artist from the past, woven into an imagined scenario using actual facts as known. 

Stolen Beauty, by Laurie Lico Albanese, tells the story of the woman in the painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, a magnificence of beauty, magical symbols and real gold leaf, painted in 1907. I urge you to Google it for a better view.

Gustav Klimt 046.jpg

Adele Bloch-Bauer and her husband Ferdinand, actual historical figures, were wealthy Jews living a luxurious life in the grand days of early 20th century Vienna. They attended concerts and balls and collected wonderful pieces of art that years later were "Aryanized" by the Nazis. Adele, an intellectual woman, hosted afternoon salons with speakers on arts and politics at a time when there was increasing anti-Semitism and challenging socialist ideas. Adele befriended artist Gustav Klimt becoming both friend and muse, and, according to our fiction, lover. 

The story also reaches 40 years into the future to the life of Adele's real-life niece, Maria Altmann, who was a newly-wed in Vienna when the Nazis overran Austria. Maria's attempts to save her imprisoned husband as well as her aunt's beloved paintings have been featured on the big screen, but I knew nothing of it, being a book- rather than a movie-buff, so I found the entire novel captivating. 

A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline also imagines, using known historical facts, the life of a girl in a painting, in this case, Christina's World by American painter Andrew Wyeth.


The subject of the painting, handily included in the back of the book, is Christina Olson, a life-long spinster who suffered most probably from a rare case of Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndrome, though it was never diagnosed. This malady caused her pain along with joint and bone malformations from an early age but she refused to give in or to use any aids that we would consider normal today, such as a wheelchair. Instead, she insisted on getting places by crawling/pulling/dragging herself along.  Christina and her brother Al hosted the painter Andrew Wyeth who used their rustic home as a painting studio for many summers when he vacationed in Maine and, as well as becoming close friends, the pair also served quite often as models.

This novel, set in the years 1896 to post WWII, opens a window into both a famous 20th-century painting and a great American artist, as well bringing to life the hardships faced in rural and coastal Maine in this time period.

Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubray is a fictional story of the famous painter at a time, in 1936, when he actually went "undercover" in the south of France in the small seaside town of Juan-les-Pins. Of the three novels, this one is the most made-up, but the story is mostly charming, supposing that the fictional Girl-in-a-Window painting is a young girl from a café who brought daily meals to M. Ruiz (P's undercover name) at his rented accommodation. She quickly learns his real identity and surprise, surprise, astonishes him with her perspicacity.

Pablo Picasso, 'Woman at the Window' 1952
this one?

PICASSO: WOMAN, 1937. Pablo Picasso: Woman Seated Before a Window. Oil, pastel on canvas, 1937.:
or this one?

Neither. Of all the paintings mentioned in this novel, Girl-in-a-Window is the only fictitious one and is actually based on an idea of a painting more in the Rembrandt style.

I say the story is "mostly charming" because Picasso was not necessarily a nice person, being a typical man of this time period, with definite opinions about the subservient place of women in society and having both a wife from whom he's separated as well as a long-time mistress. In this story, he "takes advantage" of Ondine, our young chef. To her credit, the author doesn't try to make the man into who he's not, but some readers may take issue with this aspect of his greatness. 

Also, of the three novels, this one has the quickest pace especially when the story turns, as so many novels do, to a time in the future when the granddaughter of Ondine is trying to learn who her grandmother was and what her secrets were. I enjoyed the ups and downs of the plot and could see that this novel might do well on a movie screen. The author, Camille Aubray lives in both the US and the south of France and also has a Canadian connection, having attended the Humber School for Writers and having Margaret Atwood as a mentor. 

I enjoyed this book a lot, although a few recipes in an addendum would have been a nice touch. The author's website,, is printed on the book jacket so I looked it up and enjoyed seeing photographs of some of the Provencal scenes that inspired the setting. There are also a couple of recipes on the site as well as some thought-provoking questions for book clubs. 

You won't go wrong with choosing any of these books for a fascinating read and to learn more about the painters depicted. Just keep your device handy so you can google the paintings mentioned and check on biographical details to enrich your experience.