The most interesting character in Susan Vreeland’s latest novel about art and artists is Bernard Blanc, constable of the Provençal village of Roussillon. A conflicted soul, he embodies the spirit of this colorful place, remote from urban civilization but hardly immune from its wartime discontents.
Bernard appears to be something of a ruffian, with little refinement and dubious political sympathies. But, over time, he shows himself to be generous, passionate, pragmatic, inventive, patriotic and capable of heroism, as the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Lisette, slowly discerns. His emotional complexity energizes “Lisette’s List,” and his presence injects suspense into a narrative that might otherwise lapse into stately predictability.
This historical novel’s other great strength is its lovingly detailed setting, a mountaintop village — “like some fantasy kingdom from a child’s folk legend, altogether dazzling” — whose charm gradually enwraps the reader just as it does the initially resistant Lisette.
“I had to admit that the fruit trees, laden with spring blossoms, exuded a heavenly fragrance,” she says on her first encounter with the Provençal countryside. “The grapevines were sprouting small chartreuse leaves, wild red poppies decorated the roadside, and the sun promised warmth, so welcome after a winter in Paris.”
Yet Lisette is skeptical that she can ever adapt to life here. Young, naïve and somewhat selfish, she resents having been wrenched away from her cosmopolitan existence by her beloved husband, André. His argument for the move is compelling: His grandfather, Pascal, who helped raise him, wants his small family beside him in his final days.
Vreeland, whose novels include “The Passion of Artemisia” (about the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi), “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” (tales of a fictional Vermeer portrait) and “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (inspired by the Renoir masterpiece), is entranced by color, artistic creativity and the transformative power of art. These concerns also inform “Lisette’s List,” set in the period 1937 to 1948, and featuring cameo appearances by Marc and Bella Chagall.
None of the novel’s principal characters is an artist, but art matters to all of them. André carves frames, a profession for which there is little call in Roussillon. His best friend, Maxime, is employed by a Parisian art gallery. Raised in an orphanage by an artistically inclined nun, Lisette has a good eye and aspires to work in a gallery, too. And Pascal has mined ochre, sold the pigments, and made frames for some of the great names of French art.
In exchange for his frames, these artists — Cézanne, Pissarro and Picasso — have given him seven paintings, which now adorn his Roussillon home. (Vreeland combines real paintings with invented works.) Pascal also claims to have been the model for one of Cézanne’s card players. Among the novel’s more ponderous conceits is that Pascal feels impelled to describe his conversations with each artist to Lisette, so that she will treasure the paintings as he does.
Despite this artistic bounty, Lisette struggles to adjust to life in a place where flush toilets don’t exist, cultural pursuits are sparse, and the single café is reserved for men. Her husband helps by constructing an outhouse for her with a scenic cliff view.
After telling his stories, Pascal dies peacefully. And with war on the horizon, André enlists, leaving Lisette behind. Before his departure, he hides the paintings to protect them from rampaging Nazis. Much of the plot turns on Lisette’s attempts to locate the missing pictures, a task that assumes pride of place in what she calls “Lisette’s List of Hungers and Vows.”
The list both reflects and helps inspire Lisette’s maturation. Her first aim is to “Love Pascal as a father,” another is to “Learn what makes a painting great.” As her life darkens, she will add, “Forgive André,” and “Learn how to be self-sufficient.”
After years in Roussillon, Lisette in effect goes native, raising a goat and a chicken, and adopting many of the town’s customs. “Roussillon has taught me how to wait,” she tells Maxime. But Paris continues to call to her.
Which life (and potential love) will she choose once the Nazis are gone and the world again opens up? While Lisette ponders her options, readers will enjoy lingering in the sun-dappled, fruit-scented Provençal landscape that Vreeland brings to life.