In 1937, Lisette and André Roux are on their way to Provence. Lisette has abandoned the opportunity to become an apprentice at the Galerie Laforgue and André his job as the frame builder for famous artists. They have left their beloved Paris to take care of André’s grandfather Pascal, for Pascal has written to say that he is dying.
When they arrive in Pascal’s village of Rousillon, however, they find Pascal has been out playing boules. Lisette is horrified at leaving her life behind on a false pretense. Pascal is sometimes ill, but he is mostly lonely.
He also has a legacy he wants to pass down. Pascal owns seven paintings by masters that he traded for picture frames back when the painters were struggling. He wants to pass to Lisette the stories about these paintings, three by Pisarro and three by Cézanne and one study of heads by an unknown artist. Pascal is also proud of Rousillon, where workers have dug ochre out of the ground for centuries to make the paints used in these paintings.
Although Vreeland’s descriptions of Provence and Rousillon are evocative, I feel that the first part of the novel gets bogged down in these teaching moments of Pascal’s. Even though I am interested in art, these conversations are too didactic to come across as authentic.
There are other moments like this farther into the novel, but it picks up during and after World War II in Lisette’s efforts to survive as a Parisienne alone in the village. André leaves to fight at the beginning of the war. Before he leaves, though, he hides the paintings because he has heard that the Germans will search out art and either take it or destroy it because of decadence.
I was mildly interested in this novel. It is clear that Vreeland loves art, and she does a fine job of evoking the paintings and the gorgeous landscapes of Provence. She is so interested in these subjects, though, that we get a much sketchier idea of the character of Pascal, for example, or André.