Is Lisette’s List Susan Vreeland’s best novel to date? In my opinion, yes! Because I so admire Vreeland’s pictorial imagination, I have always enjoyed her fiction. I appreciate the creative ways in which she views her fictive world. Her eye sees the colors of an artist’s palette, roofs “stained red-orange from Roussillon pigments. And the red ground and the row of bushes aflame—that’s Roussillon red-ochre.” Her mind imagines shapes arranged and rearranged, like “that tree is easier. It’s solid. A cylinder. And the foliage above it, a half sphere. The road, a trapezoid. That bush, a cone.” Her heart creates a painterly scene. “The sunlight made the snow on the peak of a mountain to the north blindingly white. It shone on a river to the south in dancing specks of brilliance and turned the canals into iridescent silver-green ribbons.” A reader wants to frame her pictures in words; I want to hang them on my wall.
Lisette’s List takes place in France, and in Lisette’s imaginative descriptions of France. A young bride, Lisette leaves her beloved Paris to help her husband Andre care for his aging grandfather in an isolated, rural southeastern province. The transition is wrenching, especially when World War II intrudes and Paris becomes only a distant memory. Andre volunteers for the French army, leaving his bride alone in Roussillon. How Lisette copes, and how she endures, however, is only part of her story.
Equally important are Andre’s grandfather’s paintings. Like his grandson, Pascal makes frames to hold pictures, exquisite frames carved from wood. And when he was young, Pascal worked in the nearby ochre mines, digging the ore, turning raw pigment into paint, and occasionally delivering it personally to struggling young artists. In payment, he sometimes accepted a painting, paintings he now values more than life itself. Seven of them hang on his cabin wall, pictures by Cezanne, Pissarro, and quite probably Picasso. Moreover, Pascal can recall his interactions with the masters, can remember their very words and how they spoke about their artistry. Before he dies, he wants to school Lisette so she can appreciate the paintings too. Pascal doesn’t care that his paintings may be valuable; he only cares about the art and the artists’ words.
After Pascal’s death, keeping the paintings safe from the German occupation becomes critical. Making Roussillon her home while Andre is away battling the enemy is crucial for Lisette, too. These two narrative threads intertwine in ways that make Lisette’s List a must-read kind of novel. I believe I’ve read every book Susan Vreeland has published. Until now, my favorite was The Forest Lover, a fictionalized portrayal of the life of British Columbia artist Emily Carr, which created another visual world of artistry by overlaying Carr’s creative replications of Native art onto a rain-swept landscape of spruce and fir. Most of Vreeland’s other fiction is set in Europe and centers on well-knnown famous artists and/or their models. Only Clara and Mr. Tiffany takes place in the United States. I recommend them all.
But most of all I recommend Lisette’s List. The list, which grows longer as the book proceeds, itemizes the things Lisette must do to survive the occupation. Not only must she take care of her physical needs, but she must also tend to her psyche and its own artistic cravings. High on her list is the safety of Pascal’s paintings as well. Seventeen listed items in all, though my favorite is # 9. “Learn how to live in a painting.” That is exactly what Susan Vreeland has accomplished, in Lisette’s story and in Lisette’s List. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Susan Vreeland: The Forest Lover; Clara and Mr. Tiiffany; Luncheon of the Boating Party; The Passion of Artemisia; Girl in Hyacinth Blue; Life Studies, Stories.