A novel as sparkling and elegant as a Tiffany lampshade

  • Article by: KATHERINE BAILEY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2011 - 1:19 PM

Based on a real person, Susan Vreeland's novel about a stained-glass artisan and her years at Tiffany's is a sensitive portrayal of women's struggles in the 19th century.

"Clara and Mr. Tiffany" by Susan Vreeland

In an afterword to her latest novel, "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" (Random House, 401 pages, $26), Susan Vreeland explains that it was the discovery in 2005 of Clara Driscoll's correspondence that inspired her to write the book. Like her five earlier novels -- most notably, "Luncheon of the Boating Party" and "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" -- "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" chronicles the life of a historical figure from the art world. Once again, Vreeland combines her capacious imagination with diligent research to create a compelling portrayal of a person, an era and a distinct milieu.

The novel opens in 1892. Clara Driscoll, recently widowed, moves from Brooklyn to a boardinghouse in Manhattan, located near Tiffany & Co., the decorative-glass works. Clara had been employed there previously, but was forced to resign when she married Francis Driscoll. Married women were simply not welcome in the workplace. Now, Mr. Tiffany is thrilled to have his chief artisan back, and the two resume their remarkably compatible professional relationship.

Vreeland endows Mr. Tiffany with charm and magnetism. "Train yourselves by seeking and acknowledging beauty moment by moment every day of your lives," he tells his employees. "Take pleasure in the grace of shape and the excitement of color." Early in the book, Clara suggests to Mr. Tiffany the feasibility of lampshades constructed of colored glass pieces and lead work.

Though at the height of her career at Tiffany's Clara is managing a sizable department of female glass designers and cutters, it is her work as an artisan that she finds most fulfilling. Continually she struggles to achieve originality and authenticity. Vreeland's account of Clara's creation of the dragonfly motif and her adaptation of it to the lamps is fascinating.

Clara' personal life, too, provides much interest. She scorns the very memory of her husband, Francis Driscoll, because he bequeathed his money to a daughter from a previous union, whom Clara never knew existed. Clara's housemates at her unconventional boardinghouse are distinctly bohemian -- a painter, a poet, a journalist, an artist's model, a playwright, an actor. Bernard Booth, an Englishman, becomes her closest friend and confidant, and George Waldo introduces her to his brother Edwin, a man with whom she falls in love and plans to marry until he mysteriously disappears while he and Clara are vacationing in Lake Geneva, Wis.

Vreeland's portrayal of the period's unjust treatment of women is certainly one of the book's stronger features. She has captured the tone of an era during which wise and capable women appear to accept without question their status as second-class citizens. It is this kind of sensitivity that intensifies every aspect of her novel. Indeed, the consistent elegance and vitality of her prose makes reading her book a pleasure.

Katherine Bailey contributes reviews to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit her website at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.

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