I was attracted by the idea of this book when it came out in January, and I’ve just now gotten around to it. I’m really enjoying reading books pre-publication for Shelf Awareness, but it’s also nice to sneak one in every once in a while that’s NOT a thriller/suspense/murder-mystery. For that matter, I have some classics to read for the Classics Challenge, and I’ve been talking about Don Quixote…
But at any rate. Recently, on a whim, I picked up Clara and Mr. Tiffany, and it immediately grabbed me with its lovely writing, evocative of the artistic beauty the book revolves around. Clara, the narrator, works for a living in the 1890’s, and before the action of the book begins, has already had to choose between marriage (even… love?) and her passion for her work. Clara Driscoll, a real historical figure, was the artist behind much of the stained glass and the legendary lamps for which the Tiffany name is so famous. Vreeland has fictionalized her story for us here. Clara also has quite a bit in common with another historical figure I read about recently: Annie Londonderry took her extraordinary ride during the same years in which this book begins. It gave me a nice little thrill to recognize the historical setting, especially because the two female characters have so much in common. Reading these two books back-to-back allowed me to immerse myself even more in the times, and I’m tempted to head right into The Devil in the White City next. We’ll see.
I want to share a beautiful excerpt with you to illustrate the writing style.
…I carefully wrapped in a hand towel the one thing I had that no one could wrench from me – the kaleidoscope, his engagement gift to me. Bits of richly colored glass in a chamber served as his sweet acknowledgement that I’d had to give up my joyous work with just such glass in order to marry him. At the slightest turn of the maple-wood tube, the design collapsed with a tiny rattle of falling objects, and in a burst of an instant, nothing was the same.
Vreeland’s writing is quietly lovely and melodic; it expertly creates both a mood and a pacing to match the world in which Clara lives and works, and also evokes the colors, art, and beauty that involve her so deeply. Clara is an artist, first and foremost; she wants to design, to create, to replicate nature (she loves flowers, insects, the sea, leaves) and uplift the human spirit. As a woman at the turn of the century, though, she faces a number of challenges as a working woman, as a single woman, and as a craftswoman intent on earning a living, knowing she deserves one. She’s tormented by the frustrations of being unrecognized by Tiffany and by the world, as Tiffany (the man, and the company) receive accolades for her work. But she’s also tormented by guilt for what she thinks of as her narcissism – in that she desires credit at all.
Clara is a well-developed character. We see her progress, for example, as a feminist. She doesn’t set out with any high-minded ideals, but rather develops them as the world fails to treat her fairly. Clara heads up the Women’s Department at Tiffany, and her “girls” are described in varying detail; some of them become very real and sympathetic characters, and many of them serve to portray the experiences of immigrant workers in New York during this time. When their department comes under attack from the unionized male employees, Clara organizes the women to march into work together through a picket line – not striking, since the union doesn’t recognize them, but vilified all the same. This part of the story serves to underline that not all feminist demonstrators began as idealists or radicals, but rather that “regular” women were forced to stick up for themselves or die quietly. I appreciated that point.
Over the course of the book (spanning 1892-1908), she has a series of relationships: we meet her freshly widowed, she is courted by several men, and has a number of very close friendships. I found her heartfelt friendships, with men and with women, to be very touching. She struggles with love, with the idea that she’ll never find a satisfying romantic relationship with a man; with finding respect and fulfillment at work; with creating ideal art and beauty and being recognized for it. The story is of art, and of a time and a place, of love, and of women’s rights and a changing world. But mostly, it’s Clara’s story.
This was a beautiful book. The art and music bleed through the pages:
The sparrows of Irving Place were preening too, and gossiping pianissimo, and hopping about with an air of importance. Distant medleys of the city blended into a pleasant humming, punctuated at intervals by the Third Avenue elevated rumbling in a crescendo, grinding its brakes shrilly for the Eighteenth Street station, expelling its pfft of steam, then starting up again and fading away in a diminuendo.
I liked the historical aspects, too. As I like my hist-fict authors to do, Vreeland includes a note at the closing to explain where she took liberties. It does seem fairly clear that Clara Driscoll created many or nearly all of the leaded-glass lamps Tiffany got credit for; she did have two marriages; and a number of the figures in the novel did at least exist, with a few verifiable details. But much of the novel is purely fiction.
This was a really beautiful book, enjoyable to read, with a comforting, quiet rhythm and characters I cared about. It was a joy, and I recommend it.