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Book club alert: three great January picks

Book clubs in search of fresh material should check out this month's fiction round-up. Judging from these three books – two novels and a short story collection – 2011 is off to a great start.

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1. Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland

"Clara and Mr. Tiffany," by Susan Vreeland (Random House, 397 pp.)

You know those leaded-glass lampshades synonymous with Tiffany? It turns out that Louis Comfort Tiffany didn't design them. They are, most likely, the creation of a woman named Clara Driscoll, who ran the women's workshop at Tiffany's studios. (A cache of her letters was discovered in 2005, giving credit – finally – where credit was due.)

Bestselling author Susan Vreeland explores Driscoll's life and work in her most successful novel since her first, “Girl in Hyacinth Blue.”

In the novel, Clara's boss is a man of great contradictions. Tiffany was willing to make a woman a manager in the 19th century, and he believed that women had a better eye for color. (His women's workshop also protected him from strikes, since women weren't welcome in the union.) But he refused to let married women work for him and wouldn't allow his daughters to go to college.

And he scooped up the credit for his employees' work. When Clara questions a male glassblower about this, he says, “The work itself is the reward.” Clara, on the other hand, isn't so sure. “It's not too much to want both,” she says, but has to concede his point that without Tiffany's backing, she never could have created those famous lampshades dripping wisteria and dragonflies.

Driscoll hovers between the Victorian era and New York's Gilded Age, which Vreeland beautifully recreates. She was able to support herself financially in the arts at a time when few professions were open to women – as long as she gives up the chance of a family. Here again, a reader might think with Clara, “It's not too much to want both.”

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