186 of 189 people found the following review helpful
Clara Driscoll (1861-1944) was an actual designer who worked for Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) at the turn of the last century. This novel steps into her shoes as she creates designs with colored glass pieces and manages the all-woman studio that assembles signature Tiffany windows and lampshades. While the storyline traces this independent woman's days over the course of sixteen years, it also by necessity touches on some of the tensions of the times: the limitations in the rights of women; the difficulties of newly-arrived immigrants to the boroughs of New York; and the demands of trade unions and the administrative challenges they can cause. It juxtaposes Art against Commerce, raising the question of which one of the two is more important. This is a dichotomy the Tiffany company itself must face and must resolve in order to survive.
But at its core, this book is about an artistic woman who seeks value in her life and in her work. Clara tells her tale in the first person; and through her eyes, we are thus able to witness her personal and professional setbacks and successes. We meet the assortment of her fellow bohemians who reside in one particular Irishwoman's boarding house. As we take Clara's side and hope that she finds all of the external validation and the happiness that she deserves, we come to realize that her boss, Mr. Tiffany, is in search of those same satisfactions, too. The lingering question is: Will they both succeed?
Good historical fiction introduces us to worlds we do not know firsthand. It teaches us history while it confirms for us the universality of the human experience. Author Susan Vreeland conveys these concepts well. Even her chapter headings reflect the storyline. Each title suggests either a hue of color or a still-life subject of focus. Everything here is about Art.
During my time with this book, I felt the need for more visual references of the stained glass artistry. The Tiffany window outline on the front book cover wasn't enough for me. So I checked out a few Tiffany coffee table books from a local library. When I paged through the exquisite and colorful plates, I could consider the people who created each one, and the many hours of work that both men and women devoted to those projects -- just as Clara and her Tiffany girls really did. Vreeland's book brings home the fact that inanimate objects include a human element whenever they are made by hand. I know I will look at Tiffany windows and lampshades differently from this moment on.
Susan Vreeland has once again revealed the people and the stories behind Art. "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" makes for compelling and enjoyable reading. It's a good story that happens to be based on fact. An Afterword defines which of the book's details were real and which ones were filled in by the author's imagination. The book reminds me somewhat of Nancy Horan's Loving Frank: A Novel, a book based on the relationship of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. And although this was my first foray into the novels of Susan Vreeland, I now want to go back and read a few of the others. I love books that help me understand "the rest of the story." Vreeland's volumes appear to do just that.
[Review is based on seeing the Advance Reader's Edition.]
144 of 152 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2010
I had never read a book by Vreeland but was excited to read about Louis Comfort Tiffany (whose supposed works! I have always admired) so I jumped on this book. I was at first put off by the writing style and marked passages I thought clumsy and awkward, mostly passages that were there to teach the reader something about working with glass, but having these lecturing phrases in the mouths of the characters was rather offputting. Luckily I was quickly drawn into the drama of the women who worked under Clara's supervision and Clara's own artistic triumphs in creating some of Tiffany's most famous lamps. I ended up buying a pictoral book on these lamps and windows from Amazon and mean to buy the book for a friend ALONG with the picture book which I know will add much to the story since the creation of many of the lamps is discussed in detail.
I was much struck while reading this that many have wondered why there have not been more famous women artists, writers, composers, etc. Well, this woman was not known as the creator of these "Tiffany" lamps until letters she had written home were discovered very recently. That is the compelling part of this novel for me. I don't think I would have enjoyed this as much as I would if it had not been based on a real person's story and that person was a victim of her time - Tiffany's "girls" were not allowed to marry, if they did they lost their positions. They were certainly not allowed to form a union. The men's union at Tiffany worked hard to get them shut down and concessions had to be made to allow them to have a woman's workshop - this was early 1900s.
The joy of working with the colored glass, the characters, including gays, she boarded with, the glimpses into the immigrant slums, the incidentals of living at the time are all very interesting and strong points in the narrative. The weaker part for me was Clara's own personal story and interactions.
Another point driven home was art vs profit - Louis Comfort Tiffany was always in the red and had to be bailed out by his father Charles Tiffany of Tiffanys the jewelry store. The accountants were always looking for ways to make an easy profit basically telling Clara to stop designing the more expensive lamps - what a loss! There are so many Tiffany lamp imitations these days that the real exquisite beauty of the original lamps has been diminished. Do yourself a favor and read this book and go to the library and look at colored photos of the lamps Clara Driscoll created.
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2011
Historical fiction author Susan Vreeland has done it again! In her latest novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel, Vreeland creates a wonderfully compelling story of an artist and the world she lived and worked in. This fascinating story traces sixteen years of Clara Driscoll's life between 1892 and 1908, the years she served as head of the Women's Department at the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Vreeland asserts in her novel that it was in fact Clara Driscoll and not Louis Comfort Tiffany who hit upon the idea for the now famous Tiffany lamps!
Vreeland does not make this radical claim without proof and true to form she has woven this particular story around extant historical documentation. In this instance, Vreeland was able to use Clara Driscoll's own words as expressed in her letters which were discovered in 2005. Vreeland's novel is filled with details and descriptions of life in New York City. In fact, these descriptions are one of the novel's greatest strengths; Vreeland's ability to create such incredible images with her words gives the reader the opportunity to completely understand what life was like for an unmarried woman living and working in turn of the century New York.
Clara Driscoll's time at the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company was not just about her creation and designing the leaded glass lamps but also about the creation and flourishing of the Women's Department with Clara as its head. In a time when women barely had any rights at all, Clara Driscoll saw that her girls earned a fair wage and were treated with respect. Admittedly, these issues were not always easy ones and Vreeland expertly deals with the social aspects of women in the workplace.
Vreeland also deals with the personal struggles and sacrifices Clara and her girls made during their time with the Tiffany Company. For instance, per company policy, all of the women working for Louis Comfort Tiffany had to remain unmarried. This policy becomes problematic for many of the women but especially for Clara who constantly struggles with her need to be recognized as a true artist and her desire to be married. This policy turns into a very clever way for Vreeland to develop the story lines of some of the minor characters, many of which are incredibly delightful and well developed.
Another of Vreeland's greatest strengths lies in Vreeland's ability to describe the leaded glass making processes without becoming bogged down in technical jargon. All of the descriptions are expertly woven into the plot line so that they become a part of the novels' fabric and not independent or boring descriptions of glass making. As you proceed through the novel you find yourself holding your breath waiting to find out if a new process or procedure for creating a lamp works or if it will prove to be a total failure. As with all of Vreeland's historical fiction, the reader becomes completely invested in the characters and their lives. You celebrate the victories just as Clara and her girls did and cry when any one of them experiences either a personal or professional loss
This book is beyond being worth your time and energy as a reader; it is a must read if you love historical fiction! Vreeland is a master storyteller and even if you know nothing about Tiffany and Company, the leaded glass industry, or women's rights in turn of the century New York, you will love this novel.
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2011
Knowing a bit about Clara Driscoll, I was at first pleasantly surprised to see a book on her life, even a novel. However, I found the book a profound disappointment. There is no character development of ANY character whatsoever; they seem to be dropped in without explanation or purpose. There was no storyline. The voice of Clara was woefully current -- I actually felt like I was reading dialogue from a modern day female detective series. Smart-ass and flip, I could not reconcile it with a woman who lived in the 1890s. Louis Tiffany was rendered as a demi-god and a man who treated Clara well (which is NOT true!) - not too mention the fact that in the novel she is never given the FULL credit she deserves for the idea and creation of the Tiffany Lamp. The read was difficult, choppy and filled with descriptions that were curious and served only to make me think, "WTF??" - describing a moustache as "robust ram's horns," is just one of many examples of the writing. Scenes appeared and disappeared without any melody, jarring in their structure. I kept thinking, "this needed an editor." I found myself constantly rereading previous paragraphs, convinced that I was missing something -- but I wasn't. I actually felt relief when I was able to read a few descriptive paragraphs that flowed.
I thinking "lurching," "awkward," "without a clear story line," "clumsy," are the overarching words I would use to describe this novel. And it is a keen and deep disappointment that poor Clara Driscoll is brought to light in this fashion. I couldn't quite finish the novel, which irritates me as I HATE not finishing a book, but I realized I simply was not enjoying it and had grown to actively dislike it.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2011
Clara Wolcott Driscoll was my 4th cousin and I have given 23 presentations locally and in upstate NY about her in the past 4 years with more scheduled over the next two years. I'm making no money on these talks, so have no hidden agenda in my review. However, in my studies of her life (she was my great-grandmother's cousin), Clara was a maverick among women of her time. Her life was fascinating and was detailed in the more than 1,163 round robin letters her family left behind which span 1853 (beginning with her grandmother) and ending with Clara's death in 1944. The letters are now at Kent State U's Special Collections Dept. More letters were found in a home in Queens, NY in 1997 (167) left behind by her sister, Emily (died in 1953), when she lived and taught school in Queens - those letters are now a part of Queens Historical Society. Clara poured out details of her life and her work into these letters - there are everyday happenings as well as exciting events, her travels to Euorpe, her loves, her marriages, her losses. She was full of spunk and personality and this jumps off the pages of her letters. The lamps, as well, speak for themselves - their beauty has transcended the generations, whether in or out of vogue. The work remains. She was a remarkable woman, balancing her creativity and her business accumen - and finding time to enjoy life to the fullest. This book has addressed many of these events, for which I am thankful. But, the one thing that truly bothers me about this book is that the writer felt it necessary to include a gratuitious "love" scene - something not found in Clara's letters. I realize novelists take liberties - but I doubt very much that "proper" Clara from Tallmadge, OH, daughter of Fannie and Elizur Wolcott, in late 1800s, who lived in boarding houses most of her single and even married life, where women of "low moral quality" would be thrown out on the street, would have suggested and indulged in a "pre-nuptual honeymoon". Portraying Clara as a New Woman (which was not coined until the early 1900s) would have been very possible without this chapter. Fiance', Edwin Waldo, did indeed abandan her while on a trip to Chicago and after a lengthy visit to her family in Tallmadge - but this scene never happened. To me this chapter cheapens our Clara's story. Clara was all about her art, and was always hopeful she would receive recognition for what she did. Her personality and experiences "jump out" from the pages her letters. But I wish I had not been left with the bitter taste of the Lake Genevea chapter. It didn't happen and it never should have been written - even in a novel.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
This is one book I was truly sorry to see end. Clara will captivate you with her turn-of-the-century tale of the life of a newly "modern" woman. The book offers glimpses into several stages of her life - at the end of each ear Clara deftly turns the kaleidoscope for you and the image she's just painted shatters, only to be replaced by an equally detailed and artistic one on the next page. Not at all a stock "girl meets boy, loses boy, gets boy in the end" story, instead it's more of a "girl finds happiness and purpose, loses it, finds it again" tale. The men in her life are many and varied, but not romantic props - they are deep and complex, as are the varied relationships she has with them. It's the first time in a long time I've read a tale that explores the deep and satisfying relationship that can be part of a professional and artistic collaboration between two people - regardless of gender.
Like another wonderful book of the same era (Devil in the White City), the author also deftly includes snapshots of all the important happenings of the era - the Chicago World's Fair, the opening of the New York Subway, issues of immigration and organized labor, the first New Year's Eve to see an electric lighted-ball descend in Times Square...
You won't be able to put this one down!!!
28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2011
As a voracious rader, a good book is one of my greatest pleasures. I can usually find something entertaining in most books,
but, Susan Vreeland's Clara and Mr. Tiffany has proved to be the exception. It was, without doubt, a painful experience.
I can find nothing redeeming about this novel. To put it mildly, it seems a shizoid jumble of technical lectures and bodice ripper romance.
As others have noted, it is poorly constructed and the writing is deplorable. Reading it was like walking through knee-deep mud.
Though this book takes place at the turn of the century, the main character, Clara Wolcott Driscoll, comes across as modern, surly and
man-hungry, full of cheap romance novel cliches ('My double-lobed heart split with a thunderous crack...') ?? Worse, she is made out to be
a complete toady to the Great and Powerful Tiffany - who undermines her at every step.
In fact, Clara Wolcott Driscoll Booth was one of America's most individualistic and prolific artisans, to whom Louis Tiffany gave little recognition, claiming
her (and many others') work as his own. Why Vreeland has chosen to portray Clara Driscoll in such a negative light is a serious lack of good judgment - or, perhaps, a serious lack of research into the main character of her book.
Unfortunately, I was suckered in by the 4 and 5 star reviews Now, that I've read the thing for myself, i can only surmise they must have been
written by friends or relatives who recieved advance copies. No one in their right mind, or without a vested interest would represent
this book as anything other than a waste of the reader's time and money.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2011
Before reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Tiffany lamps, other than what they looked like. I always assumed they were created and designed by Tiffany. I picked up this book because I heard that a woman named Clara Driscoll was behind the idea, creation and designs of Tiffany lamps and I wanted to learn more. If you are looking for a good historical fiction read with a lot of detail on the creation of Tiffany lamps, you won't go wrong with Clara and Mr. Tiffany. As a history and art history major in college, I found the story fascinating.
What I loved most about the book was the glimpse of New York City life at the turn of the century. From walking the streets with Clara as she and her friends go to Times Square for New Years Eve, visiting the mansion of Louis Tiffany, walking the Lower East Side and viewing tenement living, riding the subway for the first time, bicycling around Lady's Mile to witnessing the creation of NY's first skyscraper, the Flatiron (a building I now work in), I felt like was there with Clara. I also loved learning about the process for creating the lamps. I liked the amount of detail the author provided on the process of selecting the glass, creating the work, piecing it together, etc.
At first I was annoyed by Clara's "complaining" about never getting recognition for her work. She did work for Louis Comfort Tiffany and rich customers were familiar with his name and therefore would be more willing to pay high prices for something designed by him, not by her. But I had to step back and put her feelings/complaints in historical context. I live in a time where women do get credit for their work and contributions. When Clara worked for Mr. Tiffany, there were no equal rights for women, they couldn't join a union, they were dispensable and had absolutely no job protection. Once I was able to understand where Clara was coming from, I appreciated her passion for her work and that of her Tiffany "girls." Their craftsmanship deserved to recognized.
In reading other reviews, I've seen a few reviewers say that they would have preferred less detail on art and more detail on Clara's choice of art over love. I disagree with them as I found her love life didn't add much to the story. Yes, she had to chose her job over love (Mr. Tiffany wouldn't allow married women to work for him) a difficult decision for women in the early 20th century, but I felt at times that whenever the author introduced a new male character, Clara first thoughts always pertained to his potential as a mate. Granted women did have to hitch their wagon to a man's since their opportunities were limited, I just felt that Clara was such an independent woman her focus on these potential partners detracted from the story. But other than that, I had no major issues with the book.
Again, if you are looking for a good historical fiction read, pick this up. You'll walk away with a great view of New York City and the woman behind the Tiffany lamps.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2011
Despite the ambitious research by Vreeland and my intense interest in Tiffany glass, this novel did not resonate with me. I appreciate the story of the unrecognized women who designed and worked for Tiffany but Clara Driscoll and the other secondary characters never really came to life for me.The characters seemed very one dimensional with no real substance to them. Set at the turn of the century, the novel does accomplish providing a feel for the life and times. The struggle of women to obtain artistic rights, the plight of early immigration,and the customs,mores and social climate are rendered successfully.The chapters devoted to the individual stained glass lamps read like a manual for stained glass making and did not capture in their technical descriptions, the moving beauty of their artistic magnificence.Some pictorial representations would have dramatically enhanced these lamp sections.The novel was successful for me in that it made me want to go and see the masterpieces of Tiffany glass firsthand.I will look at them with new eyes as I now better understand the complicated process and the struggles of the unsung woman heroes behind many of the Tiffany creations. I am hoping that my book club will meet at the Metropolitan Musem to discuss the book .Afterwards we can experience the wonder and beauty of the Tiffany glass together knowing that women like us were an instrumental and integral part of it all.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2012
It may be unfair to criticize Susan Vreeland for not writing the book I expected. Some reviewers have already panned it without saying anything constructive.
If you're going to write a novel, you need to build toward some kind of climax with tension, failure, humor, and unexpected twists. And you are allowed to make stuff up to do this. Vreeland seems to have had access to volumes of info on Tiffany and Clara and is determined to use it all.
If you are an artist interested in Tiffany's techniques, this book is great. But for most of us, once you've described in detail how to make a stained glass daffodil, we don't need the same treatment for a dragonfly. But Vreeland does it with encyclopedic thoroughness.
If you are nostalgic for a travelogue through turn of the century New York, this book is for you. It contains descriptions of living in a bohemian boarding house, taking the surf at Coney Island, and riding the first subway. But the descriptions drown any hope of drama or love story.
It may be realistic that Clara accepts sexist practices like prohibiting the employment of married women, and restricting jobs based on the "Natural abilities" of each sex, but it could have provided more drama to get into Clara's and Tiffany's heads to examine their feelings in the context of the times they lived in. Again, this is fiction. Vreeland is free to speculate.
It is possible to combine historical detail with characters you can fall in love with. Look at Herman Wouk's wartime stories, Frank McCort's description of troubled Ireland, T.C.Boyle's story of Frank Lloyd Wright's women.
Maybe a framing of the story, with a fictional description of the 2005 discovery of the documents about Clara's work, either at the beginning or the end, or both, would have tied the story up better than the flat afterword. Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel