Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel Paperback – Mar 20 2012
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“Vreeland’s ability to make this complex historical novel as luminous as a Tiffany lamp is nothing less than remarkable.”—The Washington Post
“A novel as sparkling and elegant as a Tiffany lampshade . . . a sensitive portrayal of women’s struggles in the nineteenth century . . . [Susan Vreeland] has captured the tone of an era. . . . The consistent elegance and vitality of her prose make reading her book a pleasure.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“As she did for a Vermeer painting in Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Vreeland traces the secret history of an objet d’art—this time, the iconic Tiffany lamp. . . . A fascinating look at at turn-of-the-century New York City.”—People (4 out of 4 stars)
“Vreeland’s writing is so graceful, her research so exhaustive, that a reader can’t help becoming enfolded in this fascinating world.”—Los Angeles Times
“There’s no excuse for any reader of high-quality literary fiction to let this novel pass by.”—Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
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.
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But at its core, this book is about an artistic woman who seeks value in her life and in her work. Clara tells her tale in the first person; and through her eyes, we are thus able to witness her personal and professional setbacks and successes. We meet the assortment of her fellow bohemians who reside in one particular Irishwoman's boarding house. As we take Clara's side and hope that she finds all of the external validation and the happiness that she deserves, we come to realize that her boss, Mr. Tiffany, is in search of those same satisfactions, too. The lingering question is: Will they both succeed?
Good historical fiction introduces us to worlds we do not know firsthand. It teaches us history while it confirms for us the universality of the human experience. Author Susan Vreeland conveys these concepts well. Even her chapter headings reflect the storyline. Each title suggests either a hue of color or a still-life subject of focus. Everything here is about Art.
During my time with this book, I felt the need for more visual references of the stained glass artistry. The Tiffany window outline on the front book cover wasn't enough for me. So I checked out a few Tiffany coffee table books from a local library. When I paged through the exquisite and colorful plates, I could consider the people who created each one, and the many hours of work that both men and women devoted to those projects -- just as Clara and her Tiffany girls really did. Vreeland's book brings home the fact that inanimate objects include a human element whenever they are made by hand. I know I will look at Tiffany windows and lampshades differently from this moment on.
Susan Vreeland has once again revealed the people and the stories behind Art. "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" makes for compelling and enjoyable reading. It's a good story that happens to be based on fact. An Afterword defines which of the book's details were real and which ones were filled in by the author's imagination. The book reminds me somewhat of Nancy Horan's Loving Frank: A Novel, a book based on the relationship of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. And although this was my first foray into the novels of Susan Vreeland, I now want to go back and read a few of the others. I love books that help me understand "the rest of the story." Vreeland's volumes appear to do just that.
[Review is based on seeing the Advance Reader's Edition.]
I was much struck while reading this that many have wondered why there have not been more famous women artists, writers, composers, etc. Well, this woman was not known as the creator of these "Tiffany" lamps until letters she had written home were discovered very recently. That is the compelling part of this novel for me. I don't think I would have enjoyed this as much as I would if it had not been based on a real person's story and that person was a victim of her time - Tiffany's "girls" were not allowed to marry, if they did they lost their positions. They were certainly not allowed to form a union. The men's union at Tiffany worked hard to get them shut down and concessions had to be made to allow them to have a woman's workshop - this was early 1900s.
The joy of working with the colored glass, the characters, including gays, she boarded with, the glimpses into the immigrant slums, the incidentals of living at the time are all very interesting and strong points in the narrative. The weaker part for me was Clara's own personal story and interactions.
Another point driven home was art vs profit - Louis Comfort Tiffany was always in the red and had to be bailed out by his father Charles Tiffany of Tiffanys the jewelry store. The accountants were always looking for ways to make an easy profit basically telling Clara to stop designing the more expensive lamps - what a loss! There are so many Tiffany lamp imitations these days that the real exquisite beauty of the original lamps has been diminished. Do yourself a favor and read this book and go to the library and look at colored photos of the lamps Clara Driscoll created.
Vreeland does not make this radical claim without proof and true to form she has woven this particular story around extant historical documentation. In this instance, Vreeland was able to use Clara Driscoll's own words as expressed in her letters which were discovered in 2005. Vreeland's novel is filled with details and descriptions of life in New York City. In fact, these descriptions are one of the novel's greatest strengths; Vreeland's ability to create such incredible images with her words gives the reader the opportunity to completely understand what life was like for an unmarried woman living and working in turn of the century New York.
Clara Driscoll's time at the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company was not just about her creation and designing the leaded glass lamps but also about the creation and flourishing of the Women's Department with Clara as its head. In a time when women barely had any rights at all, Clara Driscoll saw that her girls earned a fair wage and were treated with respect. Admittedly, these issues were not always easy ones and Vreeland expertly deals with the social aspects of women in the workplace.
Vreeland also deals with the personal struggles and sacrifices Clara and her girls made during their time with the Tiffany Company. For instance, per company policy, all of the women working for Louis Comfort Tiffany had to remain unmarried. This policy becomes problematic for many of the women but especially for Clara who constantly struggles with her need to be recognized as a true artist and her desire to be married. This policy turns into a very clever way for Vreeland to develop the story lines of some of the minor characters, many of which are incredibly delightful and well developed.
Another of Vreeland's greatest strengths lies in Vreeland's ability to describe the leaded glass making processes without becoming bogged down in technical jargon. All of the descriptions are expertly woven into the plot line so that they become a part of the novels' fabric and not independent or boring descriptions of glass making. As you proceed through the novel you find yourself holding your breath waiting to find out if a new process or procedure for creating a lamp works or if it will prove to be a total failure. As with all of Vreeland's historical fiction, the reader becomes completely invested in the characters and their lives. You celebrate the victories just as Clara and her girls did and cry when any one of them experiences either a personal or professional loss
This book is beyond being worth your time and energy as a reader; it is a must read if you love historical fiction! Vreeland is a master storyteller and even if you know nothing about Tiffany and Company, the leaded glass industry, or women's rights in turn of the century New York, you will love this novel.
I thinking "lurching," "awkward," "without a clear story line," "clumsy," are the overarching words I would use to describe this novel. And it is a keen and deep disappointment that poor Clara Driscoll is brought to light in this fashion. I couldn't quite finish the novel, which irritates me as I HATE not finishing a book, but I realized I simply was not enjoying it and had grown to actively dislike it.