The year is 1878. Paris is the centre of the art world, and in the heart of its thriving, vibrant community live two sisters, Mary and Lydia Cassatt. One is at the peak of her career, as the other one reaches her moment of greatest frailty. Lydia Cassatt is dying of Bright's disease. Conscious of her approaching death, she contemplates the narrowing of her world with courage, openness and dignity. But for Mary, an independent, ambitious painter, life is unimaginable without her beloved sister. Torn apart by the idea of losing Lydia, Mary embarks on a series of five paintings. And as the emotional tension between the sisters rises, they become unable to avoid inevitable questions about love and passion, about live and death...Lyrical and tender, "Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper" is a profoundly moving, unsentimental and hugely life-affirming story of the immortality, which both love and art can bestow.
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What drew you to the story of Lydia? How deeply did you have to delve into Mary Cassatt's world to recreate her life and the lives of her family?
I loved the paintings for which Lydia posed. Something in the quiet vigor of these images-a woman reading, holding a cup, crocheting, driving, embroidering-appealed to me. The colors and shapes of the paintings, so beautiful in themselves, suggested an ordinary yet precious life, a calm and absorbing presence.
Once I began to think about Lydia in relation to her sister, these pictures became even more haunting and powerful. To know that Lydia posed while she was ill, and that she died about a year and a half after Mary created the last picture of her, made me wonder how she and Mary felt about each other, and how each of them approached Lydia's impending death.
I immersed myself in the world of the Cassatt family as much as possible. Nancy Mowll Mathews' superb biography of Mary Cassatt helped immensely, as did the engaging letters of the Cassatts, which Nancy Mathews selected for publication (titled Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters). I read as much as I could about figures like the Alcotts, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, and I tried to understand these figures within the context of Impressionism and nineteenth-century American and French history. I also hired a wonderful research assistant, Jennifer Boittin, to help me with the texture of daily French life around 1880; she described the meals that the Cassatts might have eaten, the streets of their quartier, the bits of French that might have come into their conversation. Many other friends came to my aid, with information ranging from embroidery to articles of clothing.
My hope in writing this story, though, was to wear whatever knowledge I had gained as lightly as possible, so that the details could come in naturally and simply, just as they would in ordinary life.
What made you decide to tell the story from Lydia Cassatt's point of view? How much historical information was available about Lydia? What aspects of her character sprang from your imagination?
Although at first I thought of other points of view-Mary's, another model's, Mrs. Cassatt's, a French child's-Lydia kept coming into my mind. Even when I thought of holding the story to a day late in Mary Cassatt's life, or to a week in 1910 when she was on the Nile with her brother Gardiner and his family, Lydia kept appearing in another character's memory. As I searched for a story about Mary Cassatt, I finally decided to look at Lydia head-on, to question her, in a way. Once I began to engage in a kind of dialogue with this figure, I discovered that I was drawn to her very elusiveness.
One of the appealing aspects of Lydia as a character was precisely how little people knew about her. She enters books and essays about Mary Cassatt as a largely marginal figure; and yet I felt, as I looked at the pictures of her, that she could not have been marginal to her sister.
So-I learnt a certain amount about Lydia, through the references to her in her family's letters, and through the intriguing facts I gleaned from Mathews' biography. I could guess about some aspects of her life as an unmarried, wealthy woman, ill with a kidney disease, who had lived all of her life with her mother and father, in Pennsylvania and Europe, as the oldest child of a large family.
And, of course, most of what came into the book was of my own imagining. I created the letter Lydia, as a character, writes to Mary; the sketchbook she wishes she could find; her fiancÚ, Thomas Houghton; her dreams; her memories. I brought in facts-her baby brother George's death, for instance, or Degas' frequent visits to Mary's household and studio-and wove my imagination around them.
Does writing about a real person limit you in terms of already knowing the ending before you begin?
I actually hoped, at first, that writing about Lydia Cassatt would help limit me in a wonderful way, by tossing into my lap a story already formed. Yet this did not happen! All I knew about the "ending" of Lydia's life was that she died, and that she was in much pain from her illness as well as from the treatment, which included arsenic and drinking the blood of animals. In my first drafts, I planned to work toward her death as my own fictional ending, yet after much writing and rewriting, I discovered, to my surprise, that this wasn't the ending to my story at all, because the point about my character Lydia wasn't how she died, but how she lived.
If you think about it, you realize that each person in the world could inspire thousands of stories. Each story could be true, yet each would rise out of a special slant, a certain interpretation. What I discovered, in writing about this figure of Lydia Cassatt, was my own story, the one I felt ready to write.
Which authors do you enjoy reading?
I love reading fiction especially, although I often read poetry and autobiography, essays, creative nonfiction, and I enjoy plays too. The fiction writers I most cherish-the giants on my horizon-are Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. I admire many, many contemporary fiction writers, too many to name here; the authors who come to mind first include Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Chang-rae Lee, J.D. Salinger, and William Trevor. Among autobiographers, I profoundly admire Frank McCourt and Elie Wiesel. I have learned an immense amount about language, passion, and the world from Eudora Welty and Annie Dillard. So many more authors who have woven their words into my life: Jonathan Strong, David Huddle, Alice Munro, Susan Minot, Anne Michaels.
Lydia's disease and the hovering spectre of death permeate the story. Yet one comes away from the novel with a powerful and exhilarating sense of life and of complete lives lived. How do you want readers to view Lydia and come away feeling about her?
I do hope readers come away with a powerful sense of life. I hope my character Lydia can show something about how an ordinary person can live life in an extraordinarily open and sensitive way, right up to the moment of death.
If you had to describe your novel in one sentence, what would you say?
This is a story about the possibility of love and the power of art's creation, in the face of illness and loss.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing a novel in the form of intricately linked stories about a contemporary family, focusing especially on a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughters. As in my novel about Lydia Cassatt, this fiction raises questions about memory and love, yet in a highly different way. I am focusing on the ways in which my characters remain largely ignorant of each other's personal histories, in spite of their love for each other.About the Author:
Harriet Scott Chessman has taught writing at Yale University and is on the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. She has also written a book on Gertrude Stein, The Public is Invited to Dance, as well as essays on modern literature. Chessman lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.
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Book Description Arrow Books Ltd, 2004. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0099441675