As much as I love E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, it wasn’t the first story to sell me on the idea that spending the night in a museum is pretty much the coolest thing ever. No, that distinction belongs to Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art*. So at the very, very least, I absolutely adored the premise of Daisy Whitney’s upcoming Starry Nights.
Contrary to my admittedly ridiculously romanticized vision of a Parisian teenager, Julien is unlucky in love and a technically proficient, though somewhat uninspired artist. He struggles in most of his classes—a refreshing change, as the seemingly never-ending stream of superprecocious, book smart, witty protagonists has become tiresome—and while he wouldn’t describe himself as a loner, his favorite thing to do is to wander the halls of the Musée D’Orsay all by himself. Which, as his mother runs the place, is an actual possibility: As long as he keeps his grades up, she gives him free rein there after-hours.
When Degas’ dancers begin climbing out of their frames to put on midnight performances of Swan Lake, he wonders if he’s seeing things. When a peach falls out of a Cezanne and he’s simply picks it up and puts it back into the painting, he really starts to question his sanity. When he comes face-to-face with the girl in a long-lost Renoir painting, though, he decides that he doesn’t care if he’s hallucinating or not: since at very first sight, before she even leaves her painting, he falls head-over-heels in love with her:
There she is, stepping out of her frame; so natural, so effortless, as if she does this every single night. Her long cream dress skims the floor, and she shakes out her blond curls, a Botticelli beauty emerging from a half shell. Her hair is long and luxurious, and it begs to be touched, and held, and kissed. She doesn’t realize I’m here watching her, as her paint becomes body. Now she is flesh, and skin, and breath, and life.
While I grant you that that passage has a vaguely creepy voyeuristic vibe, it also highlights the reverence with which Whitney writes about art: as something sacred, something holy. The details about art and art history—as well as the moments of travelogue as Julien and his friends run around Paris—are well integrated in the narrative, and the very few moments in which the information is relayed in a more didactic manner are forgivable, as Whitney does a great job of choosing hugely interesting tidbits to share.
Although the storyline has a number of hugely high-interest elements—dying art and the ancient Muses, forgery and a decades-old curse, spying and hijinks, ghostly possession, and of course, romance—it never quite all gels together. There is more romance in the situation than chemistry between the players—as in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, the concept is far more memorable than the characters—and it’s yet another story in which the female love interest isn’t given much agency or choice: Julien is the only person who can see her, and thus, romance her, and later, a huge decision is made for her, rather than by her. And of course, there’s the old immortal/teenager pairing, which I, in my ever-growing crankitude, rarely find believable.
Those issues almost—almost—don’t matter, though, because more than anything else, Starry Nights is a love letter to inspiration, to creation, to beauty, and to art. In it, Whitney touches on and evokes feelings of expectation and anticipation, beauty and the importance of art, curiosity, encouragement and courage and confidence, faith and reverence, love and wistfulness and pain, the power of nurturing inspiration, on priorities and sacrifice. With all that, the success of the romance element is practically unnecessary.
*And, YAY: I just discovered it’s available on YouTube.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.