The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland

forestloverWhat a lovely book. I recently read and enjoyed Scott Elliot’s Temple Grove enough that I attended to his “Note on Sources,” and requested several from my local library. This was one of those – aided by my enjoyment of Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.

Like those two of her books, this is historical fiction dealing with a female artist. [Also think of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.] The three historical periods, geographic locations, and women in question are quite diverse, but there is a very clear thread connecting them all as female, artists, and historical; I appreciate that showing of diversity in her subjects and also of a singleminded interest. I am safely a Vreeland fan now. Fairly naturally, considering that they deal with female artists of earlier times, her books also address women’s struggle for independence.

Emily Carr, like the subject of Clara and Mr. Tiffany, is a real-life historical figure about whom we don’t know everything; this is a fictionalization of her life. She was born in British Columbia in 1871 to British parents. She showed an inclination for sketching and painting early on, which hobby was encouraged by her father at first, but he expected her to grow out of it in favor of more womanly pursuits (like marriage), and she didn’t. We meet Emily or “Millie” when she’s struggling to make ends meet and trying not to depend too much on the trust fund she shares with 4 sisters, teaching art for a living and befriending local Native Canadian Indians. The sisters mostly do not approve this association. Her favorite subjects are natural scenery and native people and their lifestyles; she travels to islands and outposts for these subjects; again, this is not appreciated by her family. She does enjoy some good female companionship, though: Sophie is an Indian woman and fellow artist (a basketmaker) who befriends her in broken English; Jessica is a less adept painter but rather saucy lady friend; Alice is her “good” and friendly sister; and after Emily musters the courage to travel to Paris to study the “new” art (see below), she meets fellow painter Fanny, a New Zealander and kindred soul.

To give you an idea of the Paris of Emily’s experience, as a moment in time, I share these lines.

“Van Gogh’s been in his grave for twenty years, Cezanne for four, yet art collectors still don’t buy them, and despise what’s new now.”

“What is new now?”

“Their offspring. Léger, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, Derain, Rouault. Many directions.”

Momentous times, then!

Back in Canada, Emily ages as we watch her struggle with art and life. She wants desperately to represent the native people’s lives and art, and the powerful forest surrounding her. Or, as she comes to learn, she wants to more than represent or copy: she wants to communicate what these things make her feel. Her study in Paris under various teachers advances her practice, but still doesn’t get her there. We follow Emily through a series of lifestyles and decisions that form a crooked path but ultimately continue to move her toward a higher form of the art and communication she desires.

There is one man who begins to be a love interest for Emily; but as the title implies, she finds herself unable (for various reasons) to participate in physical, person-to-person, romantic or sexual love with this man. She is not the forest’s lover in a carnal sense – this book is not that weird. And Emily does continue to relate to people. Jessica and her sisters, and most importantly Sophie, retain a hold on her heart; and she forms a new (platonic) relationship with a damaged white man who understands Indians better than whites. But in a very real way, her relationship with the natural world is the most magnetic in her life.

I often observe that I like an author’s earlier (or lesser known) work better than the later. (I hope this is not just me being contrary. I don’t think I do it on purpose.) In this case, though, I think my favorite of her books is still her most recent, Clara and Mr. Tiffany. The earlier two I’ve read are both wonderful; but I sometimes felt this showed its earlier origins. It is occasionally less graceful. While she is mostly “on,” there are some awkward phrases, too. Observe these two single sentences, on two facing pages. I find one smoothly appealing, and the other a bit effortful.

Emily felt as if smelly white scum had eked out her pores.


A breeze shifted the ends of foliage, like the tips of fingers moving.

Do you make the same observation I do? (Which one is which?)

Criticisms aside, though, this novel is far more graceful than not; and while I could pick apart lines like the one above, the sum of its parts is glorious. Vreeland’s greatest strengths are those I recognize from her other books. She understands art, and the artist’s struggle to get it just right. She addresses women’s issues compassionately as a natural part of the story of one woman in history. And unique to this work, the natural world and its beauty, value, power, importance, and scale play a deservingly large role.

Another success for Susan Vreeland.

Rating: 8 smears of viridian.

5 Responses

  1. […] that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely […]

  2. […] Vreeland’s The Forest Lover is set in BC, as […]

  3. […] standout for me was Emily Carr, a woman I know best from a work of fiction: Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. I marveled here at her skill with words as well as pencil and paintbrush. She recounts experiences […]

  4. […] recall that I was much impressed by a few snippets of writing by Emily Carr (subject of the novel The Forest Lover). Now I have here, on loan from Pops, the longer work from which those snippets were […]

  5. […] story most of all. I think Vreeland does women beautifully, especially in my favorites of hers, The Forest Lover and Clara and Mr. […]

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