Life Studies: Stories
In Paris of 1876, a young father reluctantly accompanies his wife and four-year-old daughter, Mimi, to his sister’s garden party in Montmartre. Reluctantly, because Jérôme suffers from a malaise of dullness and a disappointment in life, as he puts it. At the afternoon gathering, his sister’s upstairs neighbor, Auguste Renoir, finds Jerome’s little girl enchanting as she joyfully sprinkles the garden with a small tin watering can. When Renoir asks if he might paint Mimi, Jérôme agrees, his heart changed by his daughter’s innocence and joy as she pursues her task, and by Renoir’s unadulterated grand passion for his own tasks, his work, his art.
Jérôme’s transformation, titled “Mimi with a Watering Can,” opens this collection of vignettes and stories, divided into three parts, “Then,” “Interlude,” and “Now.” The first section, “Then,” includes eight fictional portraits—the studies of the title—of artists like Manet, Monet, Berthe Morisot, and van Gogh, and the impact they had on the people in their lives. On the whole, while beautifully written, these studies left me feeling as dissatisfied as Jérôme before his transformation. At the end of each, I felt a bit like I had licked the frosting off the top of a marvelous dessert only to discover nothing substantial beneath, which is to say, they felt incomplete.
Vreeland writes with a clear concise voice and rare compassion for her characters. Several of the short stories included in the latter part of the collection are truly wonderful (the funny and blazingly intelligent “The Adventures of Bernardo and Salvatore” and “The Things He Didn’t Know,” whose construction worker protagonist, visiting an art gallery for the first time, comes to terms with himself in a way that made me want to give him a rousing cheer). While I put this book down feeling oddly unfulfilled, from time to time Vreeland absolutely hit the mark. For me, in the end, that was enough.