A graceful imagining of the joined lives of a rising, soon-to-be-famous artist and a young woman in fin-de-siècle Vienna.
At the beginning of art historian Hickey’s evocative debut novel, an old woman reflects on the madeleines she has brought to the mountains of Austria ahead of the advancing Red Army: “This was all I could bring from Vienna, Gustav’s drawings. He never thought much of them or took them seriously as art, they were preparatory, explanatory, they were plans, blueprints, mistakes.” In the fire of WWII they may also be the only things to survive of Gustav Klimt’s work, he himself having been dead and nearly forgotten for a generation. Hickey then turns the tale back to Emilie Floege’s girlhood, as her bourgeois father hires Klimt to paint a portrait of his daughter. Fast forward a few years, and, shades of Girl with a Pearl Earring, artist takes an interest in model as more than a vehicle for art, whereupon, Emilie recalls, “Gently he prised my lips apart and put his tongue inside.” By some accounts, the real Emilie was 12 when this happened, but Hickey wisely steers from treacherous shoals in this censorious time and assigns Emilie the age of 16 or 17. There’s little of prurient interest in these pages, though; Hickey is instead concerned to show Klimt’s influence on the young woman as a thinker and an artist, and soon Emilie has blossomed into a designer of local renown who is now a familiar in Viennese art circles, where much more scandalous things are always happening. Klimt’s relationship with Emilie—which inspired his famed painting The Kiss—is of profound importance to both, and Hickey treats it with care: as she writes, borrowing a page from real life, Klimt’s last word was his lover’s name, while years later, as Vienna burns, Emilie finds herself hoping against hope that some of the world she and Gustav knew will survive, though, she remarks, “I can realign myself to exist without certain works of art.”
Lovely, if a little ornate—rather like Klimt’s work, in other words.