The title of Sena Jeter Naslund's newest novel is exceptionally long because it is actually intended to be two novels in one. The Fountain of St. James Court is about an author, Kathryn Callaghan, living near St. James Court in Louisville, who has just finished the rough draft of a novel about celebrated painter Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Every other chapter is from the Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman which is actually Callaghan's novel about Vigee-Le Brun, the artist. While the style is heralded as unusual and "groundbreaking" it is really not that different from the many recent novels that employ a split narrative--one section historical fiction period and a connected modern day piece.
Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun painted the portraits of Marie Antoinette and many of the other royals and nobles during the treacherous French Revolution when many sympathizers lost their heads. Elizabeth and her beloved daughter flee France. She is able to continue painting and garners much praise and wealth in her lifetime. Any casual student of art history will immediately recognize her paintings after a Google search.
Kathryn is aging and has just been divorced for the third time. She wanders aimlessly about her neighborhood, worrying about her grown son's safety, visiting briefly with a myriad of acquaintances and friends and letting the reader get into her head as she simultaneously celebrates the completion of her novel and mourns the loss of her marriage.
By far, the more interesting section is about Elizabeth but even with the promise of her relationships with the doomed royals, her unfortunate marriage and her necessary and treacherous escape from the country, it is terribly slow and more often a description of a painting, rather than a picture of her life. The novel about Kathryn is tedious and frankly, depressing.
I longed to learn more about Elizabeth. There were many passages that were inspiring and I intend to pull several books from my shelf to reread the works of Virginia Woolf and The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and finally read a biography of Marie Antoinette that's been waiting on my to-read shelf for a few years.
Naslund is a beautiful writer with a talent for gorgeous descriptions. I read and enjoyed Ahab's Wife and was amazed at the constant action so I was surprised by the heaviness and lack of plot in the disjointed and ultimately disappointing The Fountain of St. James Court or Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.
**I received a complimentary copy of The Fountain of St. James Court of Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman in exchange for an honest review.**