I sit amid the presents that are not wrapped, the tree that is not decorated, and the children who are looking askance at the stove where no supper cooks. The overwrought world of Christmas present is suspended--I've opened Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, a novel of sisters, art and illness. The author, Harriet Scott Chessman, unwraps the world of the Cassatt sisters for us through the voice of Lydia, older sister and model for Mary Cassatt, a 19th-century artist who was the only American to exhibit with the French Impressionists. Through lyrical prose, we are immersed in Paris and the French countryside of the 1880s, glimpsing the lives of the two sisters as Mary paints, Lydia poses, and Degas visits. We go on picnics, eat Camembert, and lounge in Mary's studio. In this exquisitely imagined world that I hold in my hand, the exploration of five paintings is intertwined with the story of Lydia's failing health and how Mary's art will remember her sister. A short book of just 161 pages, I consume it and move back to the world of holiday presents and hungry children, but not without a greater understanding of the textured canvas of life and the light that plays through it.
Brenda Jernigan is the author of the novel Every Good and Perfect Gift. She lives in Raleigh.