Lisette’s List is a sojourn—a long stay—in the south of France, in the small village of Roussillon, and as such, the reader should be prepared to slow down and savor the pace of life it offers. Lisette and her husband André, an expert maker of frames, leave Paris to stay with his dying father in Roussillon. The transition to rough country life is difficult, and Lisette chafes at the rusticities (an outhouse!) but more, she longs for the cafés and art galleries, the movies and restaurants, and simply Paris itself.
Gradually, her resentment lessens, especially when André’s grandfather begins to tell her stories of the great artists Pissarro and Cézanne—he knew them, and he has a small collection of nine superb paintings given to him by them. One by one, Lisette studies the paintings, hears their stories, and begins to appreciate the “sacred light” of the South, whose ochre mines have yielded the pigments for many Impressionist paintings. She learns about art and painting, and hopes it will serve her well when, some day, she returns to Paris to work at an art gallery. Then WWII intervenes and she, along with the rest of village, must learn to cope with fear, with occupation, with little food and less fuel—and with the absence of the nine lovely paintings, which her husband has taken away and hidden, not telling her where, so the Nazis won’t get them. When the war ends, and her life has been turned upside down, she vows she will not return to Paris without finding the nine paintings.
Vreeland’s writing brings the sights, smells and sounds of a country life to vivid reality, along with the emotions that Lisette and the other characters experience in a world torn by war and enlivened by love and desire. Detailed descriptions of closely examining a painting, its brush strokes, the capturing of light and shadow, are exquisitely drawn and lovingly presented. A little slow at first, the story begins to engage the reader step by step until we are right there with Lisette every moment, hoping, struggling, wishing with her to help her achieve the goals of her “List of Hungers and Vows.”