Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (audio)

Hello, yes, it’s Wednesday! With school just about done, I’m returning to book reviews as a more-or-less full-time venture, and social distancing is still in full effect, so it seems I’ll be producing plenty of blog content for the summer and we’re going back to a three-day-a-week schedule. Thanks for tuning in.


I have loved Susan Vreeland’s ekphrastic fiction for years now. In spirit of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring or Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, this 2007 novel fictionalizes the story of the real-life painting Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

It opens with Renoir riding his three-wheeled steam-cycle to a village on the Seine outside of Paris to paint. We immediately meet several of the characters who will become models for his ground-breaking painting; and it does revolve around characters. While this is in part the story of the painting itself coming into being, issues of composition and light and technique, it is most about people. Renoir chases women; he is obsessed with beauty and must “love” (read: make love to) all his female models. He is also committed to “the impressionists” as a group and a movement. After reading Émile Zola’s indictment of the impressionists, that they “are inferior to what they undertake. The man of genius has not yet arisen,” Renoir knows he must get ambitious. He plans an enormous painting that will be landscape, figure painting, study of light and personality all in one. This novel follows him from discontent and conception through to the end of the painting, plus a years-later epilogue-style reflection.

But again: people. Renoir selects his models carefully, and then navigates their comings and goings; several bow out and new ones must join; he agonizes over the problem of having 13 around a dinner table (an unacceptable reference to the Last Supper), and must make a number of replacements. (Vreeland’s Author’s Note explains that all the models in her novel are the true and established models of Renoir’s painting, with the exception of the 14th, a brief glimpse of a man whose identity is unknown.) These changes in lineup, as well as the luncheons where the modeling and painting actually takes place, are the drama and plot of the novel. Over eight Sundays (the limited span of painting opportunity, because of seasonally changing light), the party meets to flirt and drink and joke and laugh and love. They take boating trips, of course, and several boat races close out the season. Part of the overall feel of the novel is this laughter, love, and conviviality. Partly too it is stressful and sad, but Renoir is always chasing joy.

Most of the story is told from a limited-third-person perspective that follows Renoir, but a handful of chapters track a few of the models. I think these might have been my favorites, actually: Renoir is engaging, and it makes sense that he forms the heart of this story in some sense, but he can be a bit exasperating (especially in his womanizing), and I loved getting to know some of his models a little better. The chapter that followed Angèle might have been my favorite departure from Renoir’s self-absorption. He is an engaging character in his own right, but not always very likeable.

The general feeling is indeed one of the appreciation of beauty, joy, and living in the moment, which (at least as portrayed here) are pillars of Renoir’s own worldview. I enjoyed being immersed in such appreciations, and in the love of lines, colors, light, and brushwork. I genuinely liked almost every character we met, and it felt like escaping into something lovely to rejoin this audiobook. (As I’m saying about everything I read and take in these days, I can’t separate the experience of this book from the pandemic. This one took me longer than usual because I usually listen to audiobooks in the gym and while driving, and midway through this book I lost access to the gym and had nowhere to go. It was a delicious escape, though, when I did get into it.) There was also an elegiac tone to things, especially late, and especially in the character of Alphonsine, who closes things out for us. She’s a somewhat tragic figure who I would happily spend more time with. In fact, I loved the women of this story most of all. I think Vreeland does women beautifully, especially in my favorites of hers, The Forest Lover and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.

Karen White’s reading of the audiobook feels right to me, and I greatly appreciate having all that French spoken aloud for me; it is a language I find confounding, and I can’t imagine how I would have heard all the names and vocabulary in my head if I’d read it off the page myself. I’m so glad I found this book in this format. I learned some things about art, about impressionism, and about period France; in the author’s note, Vreeland notes where she stuck to the historical record and where she diverged, and I feel pretty good about historical accuracy here. (Divergences were minor enough, and my retention vague enough, that I don’t think I’m leaving with any meaningful misinformation.) I’m still a fan of this author, who, incidentally, I just learned died in 2017. Luckily there are still a number of her novels that I haven’t yet read; I will look forward to those.

Lovers of historical fiction, art and ekphrasis, human dramas, and beauty for its own sake should take note.


Rating: 8 canotiers.

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