Now this is a great summer read. Not only is it beautiful to hold (Ecco imprint, thick deckled pages, only 336 pages in a 5-5/15 x 8 inch format), but the words just made me want to slow down and savor. The characters in this book were making their dreams come alive: a wealthy woman uses her ample funds to get creative restoring an old villa on a wind-swept mountain in Tuscany, and a penniless, parentless artist finds her calling restoring the paintings of old masters in Rome.
Cochineal, indigo, white lead, cinnabar, umber, ocher, kermes and weld: the words bring their own smell, their own color. Add Rome, Tuscany, love, passion, wealth and youthful beauty in the pre-war years and the combination is irresistible. That the dreams of both women are blasted apart by World War II and their relationships with men adds depth to the drama, and it continues very near to present day, when the artist looks back and has us question again the nature of great art. Provenance in terms of art, it turns out, is almost all its value.
According to David Leavitt, writing a review for the New York Times earlier this year, the provenance of Olafsson’s story is deeply rooted in the real-life adventures of Iris Origo, about which she wrote in a nonfiction memoir called War in Val d’Orcia. Leavitt sounds a little incensed in his review that Olafsson did not emphasize this “borrowing” and writes
In 1993, I was sued by the poet Stephen Spender after I wrote a novel, “While England Sleeps,” based on an episode from his memoir “World Within World.” If I learned anything from that unhappy experience, it was that it’s essential for writers to acknowledge their sources fully and without hedging.
That’s fine with me. For writers, painters, innovators, anybody who borrows from another: Acknowledge the source and keep the provenance clear, but…art historians and wordsmiths don’t kill me…I believe great art can be created borrowing techniques, styles, and yes, the stories, of others and it doesn’t diminish the work in any way. And that is really the central question of the book—you’ll see when you read it.
So yes, this is a fine book when you don’t want a massive tome and just want beautiful words arranged artfully on the page.
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