Here’s my second focus on favorite frame tales, aka interlinked stories…
When I first read Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue many years ago, I felt it shared a strong kinship with the book I was writing, the book that has now become The Button Collector. It wasn’t just because both featured interlinked stories. It was also because both delved into expressions of art and creativity, especially female creativity and how women have traditionally expressed creativity within the confines of their culture.
Needless to say, when Vreeland wrote an endorsement for The Button Collector earlier this year, I was—
over the moon…
on cloud nine…
in the catbird seat….
Pick your happiness idiom. I felt it!
I also felt quite humbled that a respected, admired and established author took time to give a boost to someone just starting out. This prompted me to think about Girl in Hyacinth Blue again, which is a dangerous thing for me because thinking about a book pretty much always leads to re-reading that book.
Which I did, and it more than lived up to my memory of it—Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a beautiful, luminous, and deeply rewarding reading experience. The book follows successive owners of a fictional undiscovered Vermeer painting in a colorful, multi-textured braid of stories. With each tale, the painting’s mystery grows until all is revealed in the final heart-rending chapter. It is a rich book that has something to offer almost anyone.
Reading it again, I was also reminded that when you open a book at different points in your life, you can experience it in quite different ways. This is not terribly surprising since I have no doubt I am a very different person than the one I was ten years ago. This time as I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue, I was struck by its similarities to two other works by incredible women authors—Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
It’s fairly easy to see why Kew Gardens came to mind as I read. Both it and Girl in Hyacinth Blue are strikingly visual pieces that shift from one perspective to another in a poignant progression of moments. Both works underscore the power of beauty to bring the most deeply felt emotions to the surface. Both Vreeland’s and Woolf’s works feature a segment focusing on the memory of lost first love. In a sense both are frame tales although the scale is much different—as a short story, Kew Gardens is in many ways a frame tale in miniature while Girl in Hyacinth Blue is fully expanded into a novel.
It’s more difficult to pinpoint why Girl in Hyacinth Blue made me think of Frankenstein. Of course Frankenstein is also a type of frame tale—one in which a single narrative is included within the frame rather than multiple narratives, but a frame tale none the less. Other than this structural similarity, the two would appear to have little else in common. As I stopped to consider it, however, it came to me that the commonality may have something to do with the quality of the male voices in both books’ opening pieces.
I have not gone back to reread Frankenstein, so I’m operating on recall here; however I believe both Shelley’s captain and Vreeland’s teacher exhibited a striving for greatness and a yearning for boldness that, at least at first, eclipsed human connections and responsibilities. Both characters evolved through the course of the narrative to realize the destructive nature of these desires, which is an interesting commentary on Shelley’s treatment of science and Vreeland’s treatment of art. Perhaps I am making too much of this, but I find it fascinating to compare the stereotypical male perspectives at the opening of the novels to the underlying themes of human connection presented by the female authors.
If there are any gender studies scholars out there, feel free to run with that!
My final observation from my re-read is that Girl in Hyacinth Blue is even more intensely powerful than I remembered it, especially the chapter “A Night Unlike All Others.” Perhaps it is because I now have children of similar ages as the children depicted here or perhaps it is because this time I knew what their fates would be, but in any case, as I read the family’s story I was right there in Amsterdam with them feeling their dread, helplessness, and loss. Similarly, “Adagia,” which I didn’t even remember from my first reading, struck me with an unexpected force as the inherent goodness of the characters, their attempts to do the right thing, and the difficulty of maintaining relationships all echoed loudly in the midst of this very quiet story.
If you haven’t read Girl in Hyacinth Blue, consider adding it to your to-read list. It is not a long book—it can easily be read in a couple of sittings. But if you’re like me, it will stay with you for years to come and might even entice you to consider this fictional painting again and again.