Clara and Mr. Tiffany

In Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland's careful, informative, and intermittently grinding fifth novel, the creative force behind the iconic Tiffany lamp steps forward into sepia-tinted light.

 

Though Louis Comfort Tiffany took credit for the stunning stained glass windows, mosaics, and decorative objects that his Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company produced in turn-of-the-century New York, many of his signature pieces were designed and produced by a group of skilled female artisans known as the Tiffany Girls. Their leader was Clara Driscoll, a forward-thinking and artistically ambitious woman who worked at the studio for more than two decades.

 

"You have to love it enough to forgo and forget all other loves," Clara tells her young charges (Louis Tiffany forbade his female employees to marry). It's advice that the widowed Clara is mostly able to follow: though she's briefly engaged to a reforming type she calls Edwin the Educator, her true love is her work—and Tiffany himself, a diminutive aesthete whose single-minded pursuit of Beauty verges on the self-destructive. Clara feels a "bottomless craving for his attention," but acknowledges that they are "artistic lovers, passionate without a touch of the flesh."

 

Vreeland's previous novels have had painters at their hearts, from French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Luncheon of the Boating Party) to Canadian Expressionist Emily Carr (The Forest Lover). But turning the focus away from Art and toward Craft proves somewhat problematic. For one thing, the Tiffany lamp, lurid reproductions of which are hawked regularly on QVC, has lost some of its original fascination and wonder. And for another, the manufacture of stained glass objets involves complicated methods of production that necessitate awkwardly expository dialogue. "Wilhelmina," Clara says, "since you're tall, you'll paste the other copy of the cartoon to the back side of this big sheet of clear glass in a frame, which we call an easel…. Cornelia, you will put a dot of this wax on the back of each of the numbered sections, which we call pattern pieces, and Wilhelmina, you attach them to the clear glass in their exact positions that you painted." Et cetera.

 

While Vreeland provides a wealth of details about Clara's work—up to and including her method of bookkeeping—she dispenses with Clara's entire history in a single paragraph of clipped sentences. "Girl feels responsible for father's death," Clara tells a friend. "Uses family money to go to art school…. Gentleman proposes marriage to elder daughter. Out of guilt for loss of father's income, elder daughter gives up job in the arts to marry him."

 

Although she remains rather opaque to the reader, Clara proves highly appealing to her fellow characters, many of whom are also based on real people. She forms a tight friendship with George Waldo, a puckish painter, and his lover, Henry McBride, The New York Sun's long-time art critic. And a slow-simmering romance with another resident at her Irving Place boarding house, actor Edward Booth (in the novel, he is Bernard), gives the novel its ultimate conflict: which is more important, Art or Love?

 

It's a potentially juicy dilemma, and it's posed in a fascinating time period, when Gilded Age excesses brushed up against Progressive Era idealism, when labor unions first exerted their bargaining power and middle-class women claimed the right to meaningful work alongside their male counterparts. But Vreeland mutes the dramatic possibilities of her characters and their era. Her New York often feels like a Broadway set (Bowery Street is "lined with tenements, flophouses, tawdry saloons, and smothering ash barrels…. For want of a clothespin, some woman's washing that been draped over a line between two buildings blew off into the running gutter"), and her steadfast heroine notes, without a trace of irony, that her stained glass lamps "carried the touch of the Tiffany Girls into homes that they could never enter in person."

 

Throughout, Vreeland's commitment to conveying Information—about, for example, glass-blowing, the Chicago World's Fair, Ellis Island, and Cornelius Vanderbilt's bedroom—seems to trump her novelistic instincts. Neither biography nor fantasy, Clara and Mr. Tiffany is too often a frustrating mix of both.

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