The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old WomanSena Jeter Naslund, (HarperCollins Publishers: William Morrow, 2013), 447 pp.,
Writing two novels in one, Naslund juxtaposes chapters set up as “Fountain” or “Portrait” to chronicle two artistic women—Kathryn Callahan, a 69-year-old successful novelist living in present-day Louisville, Kentucky, and Elizabeth LeBrun, a late 18th century artist about whom Kathryn has just finished writing a novel, with the “Portrait” title. Homage to Virginia Woolf aside, the narrative self-consciously presents us with a modern Mrs. Dalloway as we follow Kathryn from midnight to midnight of one single day. By contrast, the chapters presenting LeBrun span her entire life, opening when she is seventy, walking in the woods in France, and looking back on her life, particularly during the French Revolution. Both women muse on the meaning of various things—love, husbands, children, nature, inspiration, the creative process—but LeBrun’s sections are far and away more interesting and more thoughtful than Kathryn’s. The openly stated comparison to Mrs. Dalloway invites disappointment—Kathryn lacks Clarissa’s simple dignity and concentrated sense of the just and the true. The similarities between the two are thin, consisting more in Kathryn’s endless enthusing over autumn leaves or watching light play on the fountain rather than any inherently intelligent observations on life and purpose. She lacks the deep human relation to people and life that shines so clearly in Mrs. Dalloway’s character. Though meant, I believe, to be a sympathetic character, especially to women of a certain age (of which I am one), Kathryn as a person is shallow, needy and self-centered, and the “courage” she musters at the end of the story to face a particular fear seems contrived and empty. LeBrun, as a portrait artist of the French aristocracy, lives through uniquely dangerous times and personal tragedies that inform her character and understanding with honor, love and a brave optimism. As much as I have loved Naslund’s previous books (especially Ahab's Wife, which was spectacular), this one falls short, or at least, half of it does.
This review first appeared in the Historical Novel Society's "Review" journal of February, 2013.