The real-life subject of an iconic work of art is given her own version of a canvas—space in which to reveal her tough personality, bruised heart, and “artist’s soul.”
The figure at the center of Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated painting Christina’s World has her back to the viewer, but Kline (Orphan Train, 2013, etc.) turns her to face the reader, simultaneously equipping her with a back story and a lyrical voice. Meet Christina Olson, “a middle-aged spinster” who narrates her life in segments, dodging back and forth between her origins and childhood and her adult life, all of this material rooted in the large Maine house built by her family, whose early members, relatives of Nathaniel Hawthorne, fled Salem in 1743. Born in 1893, Christina is a clever schoolgirl whose opportunity to train as a teacher will be obstructed by her parents, who need her to work at home. The progressive bone disease which makes mobility difficult and brings constant pain scarcely reduces her ceaseless domestic workload. At age 20 she has one tantalizing chance at love, but after that Christina’s horizons shrink until the day in 1939 when a friend introduces her to 22-year-old Andrew Wyeth. Christina, now 46, discovers a kindred spirit and Wyeth, a kind of muse whom he will paint several times. Kline lovingly evokes the restricted life of a sensitive woman forced to renounce the norms of intimacy and self-advancement while using her as a lens to capture the simple beauty of the American farming landscape: “The flat nails that secure the weather clapboards, the drip of water from the rusty cistern, cold blue light through a cracked window.”
It’s thin on plot, but Kline’s reading group–friendly novel delivers a character portrait that is painterly, sensuous, and sympathetic.