Monday, April 27, 2020

A Piece Of The World by Christina Baker Kline

Over the years, certain stories in the history of a family take hold. They’re passed from generation to generation, gaining substance and meaning along the way. You have to learn to sift through them, separating fact from conjecture, the likely from the implausible. 
Here is what I know: Sometimes the least believable stories are the true ones.
Christina Baker Kline was fascinated with Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World from the time she was a little girl, and the fascination remained as she grew into the wonderful writer she is today. I share that fascination as I’m sure many of you do. There is something austere and haunting about the painting. As Kline says in her Author’s Notes: “Throughout my childhood I made up stories about this slight girl in a pale pink dress with her back to the viewer, reaching toward a weathered gray house on a bluff in the distance.”

In her fictionalized account of Christina, Kline tells the story of a girl who is crippled from childhood on—victim of a degenerative disease that renders her more and more unable to move much or to care for herself. While Kline is adamant that her novel is fiction, nevertheless it is obvious that she has researched both Wyeth and Christina extensively giving the book the feel of autobiography. The character Kline creates is austere, unsentimental, and fiercely private.

Alvaro, Al, is Christina’s brother and eventually her caretaker; he gives up his own dreams and even his hopes for a wife and family of his own to care for his sister. As a very young girl, she is cared for by her father, but he is embarrassed by her ‘infirmity’ and so keeps her out of school and pretty much sheltered from the world.
I want more than anything for Papa to be proud of me, but he has little reason. For one thing, I am a girl. Even worse—I know this already, though no one’s ever actually said it to me—I am not beautiful.
On top of that, there’s my infirmity. When we’re around other people, Papa is tense and irritable, afraid that I’ll stumble, knock into someone, embarrass him. My lack of grace annoys him. He is always muttering about a cure.
His shame makes me defiant. I don’t care that I make him uncomfortable. Mother says it would be better if I weren’t so willful and proud. But my pride is all I have.
Christina knows that her father was drawn to her mother because of her mother’s great beauty, and thus always feels judged as both awkward and ugly.

Through a friend whom Christina mentored as a young girl, and who comes back into her life as a young woman, she is introduced to the then young and unknown painter Andrew Wyeth, who lives in the shadow of his already famous father who is well known for his illustrations. Young Andrew begins to hang around the house, sketching the house and the farmland around it. He sketches Al doing his chores. He is allowed to convert an unused bedroom into a studio and becomes a kind of fixture. “He doesn’t see us as a project that needs fixing. He doesn’t perch on a chair, or linger in a doorway, with the air of someone who wants to leave, who’s already halfway out the door. He just settles in and observes…He understands why I’m content to spend my days sitting in the chair in the kitchen, feet up on the blue-painted stool, looking out at the sea…There’s more grandeur in the bleached bones of a storm-rubbed house, he declares, than in drab tidiness.

Andrew also suffered from an ailment that caused him to walk with an awkward gait, and although she refuses his requests to paint her, she is comfortable in his presence and comes to see him as a friend to both her and Al.

There is a lovely slow pace to this novel, and I found myself often looking at the print of the famous painting in the back of the book. What is it about the painting that makes it so magnetic and yet so sad?

Although Andy hangs around the brother and sister for thirty years, Christina only allows him to paint her after many years of refusal.

Again from the Author’s Notes:
For the next thirty years, Christina was Andrew Wyeth’s muse and his inspiration. In each other, I believe, they came to recognize their own contradictions. Both embraced austerity but craved beauty; both were curious about other people and yet pathologically private. They were perversely independent and yet reliant on others to take care of their basic needs: Wyeth on his wife Betsy and Christina on Alvaro.
There is little action in this novel, and it takes some getting into, but you readers will eventually be as drawn to to the novel as to the famous painting, and for much the same reason.

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