Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (book #5)

By Harriet Scott Chessman. This is the story of Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia, who is dying. The book describes the paintings Mary (May) did of Lydia in the four years before Lydia’s death.

I resisted this book at first. It’s written in a way which seems direct but the meaning tends to disappear when you look at it too closely: for instance, when Lydia says of talking to Degas and finding in his face “a sadness, maybe, or a sense of pain. It was as if I had rounded a corner, in a strange city, and had come upon a scene of terrible intimacy: a man weeping, a child ill. Yet, before I could think of something to say, the city rose up before me again, with its elegant avenues and public spaces, its overwhelming buildings, looming, sharp-edged. Also, Lydia and May use an awful lot of French words, “n’est-ce pas?,” which is irritating.

There are some good things in it, however. I liked this passage:

… I think to myself, with hesitant pride, yes, I am, I am quite a good model, and as soon as I think this, I chasten and mock myself, sending my thousand little bees to sting me, and sing their disdain. How could you think, the song always begins, and the thousand bees hum and mumble and murmur into my ear, adding new verses as they find new places to thrust their stingers in. All you’ve done is sit here, they hum, and you’re not even pretty, you’re pale as a ghost and a bag of bones too, and then the fiercer ones sing, She’s changed you into a figure of beuty, through oil and canvas, but how can you think she’s pictured you as you really are?     
   I’m used to these insects … They fatten on my clover and apple blossoms and honeysuckle, and they practice their songs in the warm sun on my meadow. So I can’t blame anyone but myself when they come to sting.

The exploration of what it feels like to be painted was interesting, as well, though I’m not sure it convinced me. Lydia looking forward and seeing herself “outside the picture,” as she will no longer be there is also arresting as a way in which one might think about death.

Interview with Harriet Scott Chessman.
dovegrayreader’s review.

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