Christina Baker Kline’s connection with Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting Christina’s World goes back a long way.
Writing for Psychology Today, she recalls that her father gave her a woodblock print inspired by the painting and “throughout my childhood I made up stories about this slight girl in a pale pink dress with her back to the viewer, reaching towards a weathered grey house on a bluff in the distance.”
After the success of Orphan Train, Kline was looking for a subject for her next work, keen to make use of all the material she had researched for her bestseller. A writer friend mentioned to her that she had seen the original of the painting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and that it had reminded her of Kline. The connection between the two Christinas was complete and A Piece Of The World was born.
Rural Maine is a tough place. Christina Olsen lives on the homestead pictured on the hill in Wyeth’s painting. She has been sick since childhood, nursed by her mother and grandmother since her birth in 1893 with a disease that remained undiagnosed but which impaired her mobility increasingly as she grew older.
By 1939, when the book opens, she lives on the farm with just her brother Al. They are both unmarried. Already her life has been blighted by circumstance – her illness, the necessity of sacrificing her prospects to look after her sick father, of keeping the farm running. Opportunities have been missed, a relationship doomed. Christina is crabby and ill, dragging herself around the decaying farm, eschewing sticks or a wheelchair, making patchwork quilts out of old clothes. And then into this world arrives Andrew Wyeth.
Wyeth comes from a family of painters. He too has a (much milder) mobility impairment. He is the boyfriend of one of Christina’s few friends, Betsy, who summers in Maine and brings him to Christina’s house to show him off. “He’s painting a picture of the house” she says.
“Why would he want to do that?”
“People are funny”.
But as he will go on to prove through his work, this bleak rugged existence and landscape is the world that Wyeth will explore, apparently a rural realist but one whose pictures hint at ambiguities and worlds that are more than they seem. “I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious,” he said.
From his first entry into the Olsen house, it is clear that he loves both it and its inhabitants. “What a marvellous house,” he murmurs as he opens the screen, craning his neck to look up and around the room. “The light is extraordinary.”
As the book progresses, we find him moving in, struggling across the fields with his easel and painting box to paint in the attic room while Christina, with whom he speaks little but intuitively understands, works on her chores below, occasionally wondering what he is up to.
The climax of the book is the painting of Christina’s World and its unveiling to the sitter.
Her verdict? “I think about all the ways I’ve been perceived by others over the years: as a burden, a dutiful daughter, a girlfriend, a spiteful wretch, an invalid. You showed what no one else could see, I tell him.”
I find novels about art, artists and characters within paintings irresistibly attractive, but they are a hard trick to pull off. The background research has to be meticulous and the temptation to gush about the glories of inspiration and creativity is an easy trap for the unwary. Here, perhaps wisely, Kline opts to leave Wyeth as an enigmatic figure, as partially hidden to the reader as he is to Christina herself.
But the painting is called Christina’s World and the novel is called A Piece Of The World and the repetition of the word “world” is not accidental. What Kline shows us is the complex character of a strong, determined, pig-headed and not always likeable woman forged by circumstance and happenstance. A survivor, if you like, taken by Wyeth and imbued in one deeply memorable image with aspirations, dreams, yearnings and a sense of entrapment, all in one.
It is very much to Kline’s credit that she achieves pretty much the same thing over the course of the novel’s three hundred plus pages.
A Piece Of The World is a finely researched book that evokes with complete conviction a world and a way of life that is remote to most of us. It is an impressive piece of imaginative and compassionate writing, elegant and moving.
One minor caveat, aimed at the publishers – the reproduction of the Wyeth painting is tucked away at the very back of the book where it is easily miss-able.
As it is fundamental to the book and will be unfamiliar to many potential readers, surely it would have made more sense to position it more obviously?
A Piece Of The World
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: William Morrow, historical fiction