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A Piece of the World: A Novel Hardcover – Illustrated, February 21, 2017
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From School Library Journal
“Another winner from the author of Orphan Train. In this beautifully observed fictional memoir, Kline uses Andrew Wyeths’ iconic painting Christina’s World as the taking-off point for a moving portrait of the artist’s real-life muse. Book of the week.” (People)
“Fans of Kline’s phenomenal 2013 best seller Orphan Train will recognize the way the new novel...brings to vivid life a little-known corner of history...Avoiding sentimental uplift, A Piece of the World offers unsparing insight into the real woman behind the painting.” (USA Today)
“The novel provides gorgeous, complicated answers to all the questions the painting stirs, beginning with the day a young painter appears on her porch. Kline has created a memorable and unforgettable voice for Anna Christina Olson, the girl in the field.” (Portland Tribune (Oregon))
“Kline herself is an artist, drawing on the real history of Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth to conjure up her own haunting portrait.... Kline’s deep research into characters, place, and time period provides the outlines of a compelling story, which she then expertly brings into three dimensions.” (Christian Science Monitor)
“Like Wyeth’s paintings, this is a vivid novel about hardscrabble lives and prairie grit and the seemingly small but significant beauties found there.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“Artfully (pun intended) inspired by the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World.” (Marie Claire)
“Absorbing...A portrait of Maine farm life, of an iron-willed spinster with polio and the accidental friendship that changes everything...Kline has a graceful, arresting style that lifts the narrative, and her portrayal of Andy leavens the entire story.” (Portland Press Herald)
“With beautiful and stunning prose, the novel explores the sensitive and complex bond between artist and muse against the beauty of the rural American landscape.” (Daily Beast)
“Christina Baker Kline’s remarkable novel, A PIECE OF THE WORLD, is the perfect book club pick. An evocative, beautifully written, exquisitely researched historical novel that will both teach and enthrall the reader. A must read for anyone who love history and art. ” (Kristin Hannah)
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Christina Olson had labels following her: a sick child, the dutiful daughter, the spinster. I'm sure there are other "colorful" labels that I can put on her but one thing about this woman, and her seemingly sad existence were her choices (or lack thereof) that led up to a fateful meeting with artist Andrew Wyeth.
In our life, we demand a few things, and one of them is to be known. It doesn't necessarily have to be to the world, but to be known to the people around us. In our everyday, we put up fences around ourselves, and pretend we're better than we believe, and cast on different roles to change the labels people already had assigned us. What if someone takes all of our pretentiousness, or looks past at our ordinary and sees us. Sees us the way we can only hope to be. And in Andrew, Christina becomes one thing - a story; a painting with layers of wisdom, hurts, regrets, suffering. Her life isn't a blank canvas as much as it's a history lesson.
I've never read any of Christina Baker Kline's work but after this, I'm going to pick up a few more. This was moving, and in her descriptions, I was there at the farm, looking on at the sky, the dilapidated house, the sea, the woman with her back turned to me. In her words, I walk into the Olson home, see the lessons written in pictures, in old chests, in seashells, and forget about the labels I put on this woman in the famous painting, but take in all that is her. Through both Kline and Wyeth's eyes, Christina is not only seen and known, but we, the reader and art patrons, are given a glimpse and a piece of (her) world.
A Piece of the World is the absorbing fictionalized backstory of Christina Olson, the subject of the painting. Kline is not the first novelist to base his/her novel on an actual painting or work of art. Tracy Chevalier, for example, based her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring on the painting of the same name by Vermeer, and Donna Tartt centered her murder mystery The Goldfinch on Carel Fabritius’ work with the identical title.
Christina Olson has resigned herself to living with her bachelor brother Alvaro in a dilapidated farmhouse on a hill in Cushing, ME that has been in the family for many generations. She is a 46-year-old spinster when her longtime friend and neighbor Betsy knocks on her door in 1939 and introduces her to a new friend she has met who spends his summers nearby. The artist, of course, is the young Andrew Wyeth. Christina knows of his father, N.C. Wyeth, having seen his illustration in her edition of Treasure Island.
Andrew is immediately drawn to the desolation and isolation of the farmhouse and its surroundings, as well as to the simple lives of Christina and her brother. Boldly and almost unapologetically, Andrew makes himself completely at home in the house, using a room (or several) on the second floor as a studio. Some of Wyeth’s actual iconic paintings, such as “Mending Fences” and “Winter 1946” were created during the time he spent upstairs in Christina’s house. Alvaro sometimes sat as Wyeth’s model.
Wyeth carefully observes the Christina’s simple but painfully difficult existence which is as bleak as the farmhouse and its austere surroundings. She developed an undiagnosed bone disease in her childhood that left her with extreme difficulty walking and keeping her balance. Because the disease was progressive, its negative effects on her daily life became more debilitating. Yet, because she had, in effect, been assigned by her parents the role of being a farmwife (even though she never marries), she was apparently indomitable in performing difficult household and farm chores in a house that had no electricity or indoor plumbing.
“It would be nice to have a normal life. I’m tired of pretending to be strong, of hiding the fact that even the smallest chores exhaust me. I’m tired of the bruises and scrapes and the pitying looks of people on the street.”
This was the life which she chose in one regard, but at the same time to which she was fated. On the one hand, Christina yearns for a fuller life. Yet on the other, when she if offered her late father’s wheelchair, for example, she refuses it out of perverse pride. Christina is stubborn and in her own way unattractive, just like any other human being, whole or disabled—which, of course, is Kline’s point.
By the same token, she is a product of her unfortunate circumstances. She had been a bright student and was encouraged by her teacher to pursue further education and return to Cushing to replace her when she retired. This same teacher gifted Christina with a copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems (another woman who lived a circumscribed life in Amherst, MA). However, the notion of becoming a teacher was quickly dismissed by her parents, and she remained on the farm relatively uneducated.
This proved to be a deficit for her when the dashing Harvard undergraduate Walton enters Christina’s life every summer for four years. Walton’s true feelings for Christina remain shrouded in the novel. Christina, however, dares and allows herself for the first time in her life to fall in love. The couple even discusses marriage. The relationship is ended, however, when Walton’s parents object to his “marrying down”. That is merely the formal end of their relationship, though. When Walton invites her to Boston so that she can see a doctor about her illness, Christina knows in her bones that there is no future in the relationship. “I feel a surge of anger,” she tells the reader. “This was exactly what I feared…That Walton’s feelings for me were conditional. That he was telling me to get better, or else.”
Kline described Christina’s burdened existence vividly and beautifully, almost to a fault. She develops a host of minor characters from Cushing who serve as foils for Christina. As a reader, I felt that there were more than enough foils to get the point early on in the volume: that people see Christina, but do not really notice her; they meet her in various settings, but never really have an encounter of any depth with her, it seems. They have culturally-conditioned preconceived assumptions that as a “cripple” she has no depth or real personhood.
Andy, however, is different. Ever the artist, he sees beneath the surface of her life in the same way that he discerns beauty and dignity in the cracked white teapot that is the subject of one of his Maine paintings.
She nervously simultaneously both anticipates and dreads seeing the painting for which Wyeth invited her to pose by sitting, almost crawling, in a pink dress in the field in front of her house. The painting Wyeth’s wife Betsy entitles “Christina’s World” is a revelation to her. “The girl is low to the ground but almost appears to float in space. She is larger than everything around her. She is part one thing and part another: my dress, my hair, my frail arms, but the years on my body have been erased. The girl in the painting is lithe and young… he truth is, this place—this house, this field, this sky—may only be a small piece of the world. But Betsy’s right: It is the entire world to me.”
Andy explains. “I wanted to show…both the desire and the hesitation.”
Only the artist was able to see both. “You showed me what no one else could see,” she responds by way of gratitude to him.
Reading a well-written novel such as this brings about change in the reader. On a strictly artistic level, as a person who writes historical fiction, I was fascinated by the deft way in which Kline interweaves fact and imaginative fiction. The story is grounded thoroughly in history. Wyeth really did use Christina’s house as a studio. He actually did picture Christina in the painting “Christina’s World”, even though the actual model was his wife Betsy. But Kline invents colorful concrete details in her imagination to enhance history and tell a deeper truth.
I only hope I can come near to doing so in Accidental Saviors, which I am working on now and which will be released later in the spring or early summer.
On a human level, the novel brought to mind various persons I know or have known in my life who may appear uninteresting or unattractive to me for some reason. Kline made me think of how I have often discounted such persons, seen them but not really noticed them, judged them to have no depth, and thus failed to discern the inner beauty and dignity of every human life. Though Kline may not use this language, her novel is a call to repentance for me, a challenge to stop and really notice people and their worth as a brother or sister.
This is a very good read. But beware, reader, you may be transformed in the reading.
Christina Olson is born and lives her entire life in a farmhouse in Cushing, Maine. When she was young, the house was full of her brothers, her parents and her grandmother. It was a working farm and there were always chores to be done and mischief to get into with her brothers. When she was about 10, she got very sick and was never able to walk well again. Even though her disease was never diagnosed in the book, it appeared to be some type of muscular weakness that progressively got worse. She loved school but when she got to 8th grade, her parents decided that it was time for her to stay home and help with the house. With no electricity or running water, her work was difficult and tedious. When Christina is much older and only she and her brother remain at the farmhouse, which is now run down. Andrew Wyeth, the famous American painter comes to town to visit friends and decided that he want to paint at the farm house. He spends the next 20+ summers painting at the farmhouse in Cushing Maine and the farmhouse and Christine become his muse. She becomes his model for his famous painting "Christina's World".
This book is so well written and tells a story about someone that I never knew existed despite the fact that I have seen the painting. Christina's life was centered on her family and her farmhouse and her life of chores despite the constant pain she was in. She was a wonderful well written character and one that I won't soon forget.
Top international reviews
Front cover doesn't cover the whole of the book.
I loved how the author wove intricate details of Christina’s day to day life, her isolation and heart-rending plight due to her undiagnosed disease that took away her ability to walk and created a sense of time throughout the length of this book. Christina’s thoughts, moods, insecurities and frustration were portrayed well and even though the reader would hate her sometimes, it was understandable to say the least. There’s one thing I would have liked to see more of and that is Andrew and Christina’s relationship being explored more. It felt like the author played it safe with the two of them. I would have loved to read more about what made Andrew paint Christina as he did and how did the two connect? What common grounds did they have other than their disabilities? BUT I’m thinking out loud here and it’s just my opinion and in no way does it undermine how tragic yet beautiful this novel is.
This is a truly wonderful book and I hope it enjoys the success it so rightly deserves. I will now put CB Kline into my list of favourite authors and happily splurge on her next release. Thank you SO MUCH CBK for such a wonderful story.