Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

My first introduction to Susan Vreeland was in high school when I read The Passion of Artemisia. At the time it was being considered for the BBYA list because of the teenage protagonist. It didn't end up making the list, but it was a powerful story - based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century painter who often depicted strong women of the Bible and mythology. A haunting and captivating story. So when I heard that Vreeland had a new book, I knew I needed to get it - I didn't even look to see if it was based on a real person this time around and just dove in!

Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A NovelLike Artemisia, Clara Driscoll is an artist constricted by society's attitudes about what women can and should accomplish. Instead of paintings, however, Clara works in glass, and is responsible for creating some of the most famous designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany's innovative glass lamps.

While working for Tiffany is a dream come true in some ways, it's incredibly stifling in others. The unionized male glass workers don't appreciate the women's department, headed by Clara, getting some of the greatest commissions. And while Tiffany is rather forward thinking in hiring women at all, he has old fashioned notions about married women, namely that they shouldn't be working. Clara resigned from Tiffany's once before to get married, but returned upon the death of her husband. She longs to have a romantic companion in her life again, but is also loyal to Mr. Tiffany, and then there's the matter of her life's passion in being an artist. How is Clara supposed to choose?

There are also wonderful subplots and minor characters - Clara has several gay friends she interacts with throughout the story, growing quite close to some of them, but my favorite recurring subplot had to be Clara's burgeoning social consciousness and labor organizing. When the male glassworkers start grumbling about all the work the women are doing, Clara organizes all of the women to march to work in solidarity under the banner of labor rights and women's rights. She counsels many of the young women in her department to improve their skills so they can earn more money to support their families, and delay marriage as long as possible to be sure they can start their married lives with a bit of money of their own. She also gets a bicycle, which just makes me want to read Wheels of Change even more (NYPL, Queens Library: WHY DON'T YOU HAVE IT YET?!). I have a feeling Clara's bike rides really illustrate a lot of what that book is talking about.

Clara has some thoroughly modern attitudes, but they're tempered by some truly Victorian attitudes that keep her from coming across as too 21st century, such as buying into the "benevolent" stereotype that women are more attuned to color so it's okay that they are segregated in their own department in the glass factory. She's overall a great character because she has so many different interests, passions, and problems that she truly comes to life. The same can't be said for all of the side characters, as especially some of the men in the periphery of Clara's life are hard to distinguish from each other.

So was Clara Driscoll a real person? Absolutely - though no one knew it until 2006. Because I'm a huge geek I would have liked a longer author's note at the end about Vreeland's research. While she relates the discovery of Clara's letters that led to the re-evaluation of the design of Tiffany lamps, I wondered how much of the characterization of other historical characters were based on fact - especially Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. But hey, I suppose I can find a biography of him on my own and try to learn for myself what may have been fact and what was fiction in Vreeland's complex depiction.
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