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Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color.
It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women’s division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered.
Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.
Susan Vreeland’s short fiction has appeared in journals such as The New England Review, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx, Manoa, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her first novel, What Love Sees, was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. Ms. Vreeland is the recipient of several awards, including a Women’s National Book Association First Place Award in Short Fiction (1991) and a First Place in Short Fiction from New Voices (1993). She teaches English literature, creative writing, and art in San Diego public schools, where she has taught since 1969.
1. How do Clara’s yearnings and goals change during the course of the novel. What personal growth is revealed, and what experiences prompt that growth?
2. At the first Tiffany Ball with Edwin in chapter nine, Clara says, “We straddled a double world.” How does that play out in Clara’s experience? What did she learn from Edwin?
3. Of all of the adjectives Clara and Alice heap on Tiffany in chapter twenty-seven, which ones do you believe are justified and which are exaggerations? In spite of their accusations, Clara says in the same scene that she adores him. How can that be? Did she truly love him? What kind of love was it?
4. How was Clara’s love different for each of the five men in her life? Given that love can sometimes be an indefinable thing, in each case, what prompted her love and how did it change, if at all?
5. Is George Waldo a tragic character? Is Edwin? Is Wilhelmina? How do you define tragic character?
6. Throughout the novel there are social contrasts–rich and poor, suffering and insouciance. Speculate on how these serve to make Clara a more well-rounded or deeper person, as well as how they serve to make the novel transcend the period depicted.
7. Mr. Tiffany makes a surprising final concession in chapter forty-seven. What was it based on? In light of it, should Clara have stayed working at Tiffany Studios? How was her decision right or wrong for her?
8. How is the Brooklyn Bridge an icon or symbol of the time? Consider its style, the construction process, the men and woman who worked on it. You may have to do a little research. Why was Edwin so moved by it? What other material things were symbols of the time? In what way were Tiffany lamps icons of the time?
9. The style and sensibility that had no name at the turn of the century came to be known as camp, one element of which is seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon and then exaggerating it. Another element of it is the playful duplicity of which Henry Belknap speaks. What art movements, artists, or pieces of art in your lifetimes reflect the camp sensibility? Do you own anything with camp sensibility? Oscar Wilde, spokesperson of high camp, said, “In matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style.” To what extent do you hold this to be true? Was he just being flippant by making this statement or is there any truth to it?
10. The protagonists of two other novels of mine are female artists. How do Clara’s goals, obstacles, and attitudes compare with those of Artemisia Gentileschi and Emily Carr? Has anything changed for women in the arts?
Reproduced with permission from litlovers.com and Random House