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I’m just home from my Museum of Fine Arts Houston Book Club, and I’m feeling very French. We discussed Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland, an account of the six weeks it took Auguste Renoir to capture a single moment in his famous painting.
While there are some Paris scenes the book is mostly set on the island of Chatou lying in the Seine west of Paris. On weekends, Parisians flocked to Fournaise family boatyard and restaurant to float on the river and eat, even by high Parisian standards, an excellent Sunday meal. Among the regulars were the men who developed Impressionism, Monet, Degas, Sisley and, of course, Renoir. At least, in this work of historical fiction, the whole idea hatched right here on this island.
So it was that when Renoir, smarting under a criticism from Zola who indicated that an Impressionist ‘masterpiece’ did not exist, decide to create one, he decided to place it on the terrace of Restaurant Fournaise. He recruited models from his Paris friends (some paid, some not) who agree to come for six Sundays when the afternoon light was perfect.
The book is a blow-by-blow of the time. Who are the people? What did they eat? Where did they eat it? Who slept with whom? Why and how often? It spares no detail.
I like book clubs as I’ve said on the blog before. My experience with this book bears me out. I’m a great admirer of Impressionist paintings. Since my first trip, I’ve loved France. Still, it hadn’t occurred to be to read this book, although I was aware of it. And then here came the Book Club selection list. I headed for the Museum shop, bought the book and started reading.
It isn’t my favorite book, even yet. But I learned a lot, looked lots of things up (thanks to Google), and yes, by the end I was enjoying the reading. Then came the meeting. One member said she disliked it so much that she was not going to say a word. Another declared it to be one of the best books she’d ever read. You can imagine—lively discussion ensued. By end of our time, not only was my reluctant friend talking, she was in the middle of the conversation declaring that she guessed she “really liked it after all.”
A good many of us headed for lunch at a nearby French bistro, where else? We all felt quite Frenchified. The orders reflected it—coq au vin, boeuf Bourguinon, a soufflé. I had Salade Landaise.
The fun of book clubs—the benefit of book clubs. First, I read books that otherwise I would have passed on or maybe never have heard of at all, and then, I think about the book in a whole new way when I hear others discussing it, pointing out something I’ve missed entirely, and, often agreeing with me.
Now, on to next month. We’re shifting gears, going back to nonfiction, going to Russia. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie is up next. Should be interesting—and long. It’s a mere 574 pages. Let’s see, if I read about 20 pages a day, I should be able to knock her off with a day or two to spare before our next confabulation.
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