Review: The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman by Sena Jeter Naslund
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
In a dual narrative, author Sena Jeter Naslund explores the lives of a modern-day fictional author, Kathryn Callaghan--a "woman of a certain age,"--and artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, famous for painting portraits of Marie Antoinette. Both women are looking back over their lives, evaluating their choices and reflecting on their losses.
I am not the greatest audience for this book. I hesitated before requesting a review copy. I really, really, really disliked Ms. Naslund's last book, Adam & Eve, and I disliked Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man when I read it in college. I've never done well with stream of consciousness. If I'm going to follow random thoughts down the rabbit hole, I'd rather follow my own; they're more interesting. But. I really, really, really loved Ahab's Wife, also by Ms. Naslund. It has a firm place in my personal top ten list. It was a toss-up so I decided to go for it.
The modern-day story just dragged on and on and on. I mean it when I say I don't do well with stream of consciousness. I could not care less about every little thought that crosses a character's brain. That said, it felt right. I have the feeling that if I were closer in age to either of these two characters, I might have loved this book. The reflections, the difficult choices that are made about aging parents, children as children and when they're adults, marriages, it all rang true and I feel that Ms. Naslund captured it perfectly. As a 35-year-old married woman with no children and parents who are still (knocking on wood) working and in decent, if not perfect, health, I couldn't find the kind of bone-deep connection I think I would have needed to really appreciate this novel.
I did much better with Madame LeBrun's story. It was much more structured with a beginning, middle, and end, and I liked reading about her life just before and after the French Revolution. The "during" years were a bit glossed over, but she got safely out of the country before everything got really bad, and anyone wanting to read more about that era should read Ms. Naslund's excellent novel about Marie Antoinette, Abundance. Her parts were very short though and before I knew it, I was mired back in the one never-ending day in the life of modern Kathryn Callaghan.
As always, Naslund's writing was beautiful and I loved the sense of place in both stories. I want to see Kathryn Callaghan's old Louisville neighborhood and Élisabeth's apartment in Paris and her cottage at Louveciennes.
Otherwise, this book was mostly forgettable for me. Readers who do better with stream of consciousness or who are more contemporaneous with the two main characters will enjoy it more than I did.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review. The book is being released today.
Read an excerpt.
Find author Sena Jeter Naslund on Facebook.
Buy The Fountain of St. James Court: or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman at
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