Susan Vreeland
The Passion of Artemisia

Book Reviews

ISBN: 978-0-67089-449-9
Published by Viking BooksPublished on: Jan 2002
302 pages
16.3 x 15.2 cm

The American writer Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemesia is to art history what Merchant Ivory productions are to film, glossy, professional and full of colourful vignettes. It is a grand confection of a novel, but like a box of Milk tray, after the first few seductive bites it leaves you hungry for something more substantial. Artemesia Gentileschi was the Renaissance’s most famous woman artist. Raped by her father’s artistic colleague she was tortured when she attempted to denounce him. Later her father betrayed her, as did the husband to whom he had given her in a marriage of convenience. The book opens with the court scene in which Artemesia is being tried by The Sibille, “an instrument designed to bring truth to women’s lips.” Cords are tightened around her fingers when she does not give ‘appropriate’ answers to the authorities, scaring her painter’s hands and branding her forever with the marks of patriarchy.

Every page is luscious with detail – “a rabbit stew with onions, white beans and turnips that smelled of sage and basil and garlic” is one of the many descriptions of food that makes this novel read like a Jamie Oliver cookbook for the Medicis, whilst every street scene is as embroidered with as much detail – “milk-white oxen wearing flowered wreaths and hauling carts of olives”, “weathered crones” with “gnarled fingers” or “swallows careening through laundry strung from upper windows” – as any gorgeous Venetian tapestry.

Freeland’s sentences are spattered with italicised Italian, crystal chandeliers are candelaria, the her baby daughter is a bambina and although the fisherwomen sell, squid, mussels and oysters they also, for some reason, sell frutti di mare, rather than sea urchins, as though they were not supposedly speaking Italian all through the book but conversing in a sort of American pidgin. Vreeland’s sex scenes are full of pressed loins, crashing waves and swelling sea. But film set costumiers should have a field day if this is ever made into a movie; there is a ball, a wedding and other countless ‘period’ cameos. Freeland is the Joanna Trollope of the Renaissance world. She provides few surprises, but if you want to curl up on a beach this summer with some romping art history lite, this is the book for you.

Lee and Elaine
Ann Rower

ISBN: 978-1-85242-416-9
Published by Serpent’s Tail
Published on: March 2002
302 pages
7.8 x 5.1 cm

The cover of another American writer, Ann Rower’s, eminently skippable book, Lee&Elaine, announces it to be High Risk, whilst the press release curiously claims it “features real dialogue (from taped interviews) with Barbara Streisand, Francis Ford Coppola and Claus Oldenburg”. This a writer who cannot decide whether to write clit lit for art babes or rite of passage reportage. A woman writer takes a winter rental in East Hampton, near the Green River cemetery where many of America’s famous 50s Abstract Expressionists are buried. Middle-aged, escaping her dull marriage, she sets out to ‘explore’ her repressed lesbian side. Obsessed with the cemetery, she decides to write a book in which Lee Krasner and Elaine De Kooning – the wives of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning – come back as ghosts and lesbian lovers. The fact that these women had no discernable relationship in real life seems to be of only minimal concern to Rower. This potentially interesting story turns out merely to be the backdrop to the sort of drab fiction published by women’s presses in the early 70s, when certain imprints published almost anything deemed ‘relevant’ by a woman, bringing to mind Dr. Johnson’s famous remark about women preachers; that like dogs walking on their hind legs, what seemed to be surprising was that they could do it at all.

Rower’s most favoured literary devise is the pun: “I wanted to write. Right” “To know. No.” and, as Lee says “I can’t believe I’ve been dead for years.” “For years,” Elaine answers. This is a book full of scented ‘tranquillity’ candles and undiluted creative writing exercises – our heroine, of course, teaches a creative writing class. There is also a little light lesbian bondage, no doubt to justify the High Risk label, but very little about Lee&Elaine. Jason Hook, an archivist and one of Rower’s own characters voices the most astute criticism. “It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. What are you writing? A romance novel? Fiction? You don’t go around making assumptions … .You are no writer. You haven’t done any background, you haven’t read anything, you know nothing about the situation, you don’t even know if you like their work.” If only Rower had listened to him and done the work – now that would have been an interesting book.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

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