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Likely Stories: Girl Reading


Interesting story of the models for some famous paintings from the 14th century to 2060.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I love calendars.  We have them in nearly every room, but my favorite is a series we have had for the last eight years: Reading Women.  Each month features portraits of women from various times and places – all with a book in their hands.  Recently, I learned of a novel, Girl Reading by Katie Ward, who was born in Somerset, England in 1979.  Her resume includes an eclectic list of her employment.  She worked at a woman’s refuge center, in the office of a member of Parliament, and in various community-based projects.  She now lives in Suffolk, England with her husband and two cats.

Each chapter deals with an artist, a model, and a painting.  The first, is a well-known triptych by Simone Martini from the 14th century, commissioned by a bishop to decorate the altar of the cathedral in Siena.  The artist picks, as his model, an orphan left on the doorstep of a convent.  Laura has plans to take the veil, but the artist has other ideas.  Ward writes, “Simone Martini has begun preparatory drawings; with each one his humor deteriorates further still.  He sketches them out with a pen and red and black inks, bent like a monk in a scriptorium, his back giving him pain.  Sometimes the modelli are more elaborate – he goes as far as making meticulous scale paintings.  Laura watched with curiosity the first time he broke an egg into a cup, the familiar sound causing her to look up.  He slithered the yolk in his fingers, pinched it, pierced the sac with a tiny blade, let the yellow liquid run out to mix with ground pigment.  These are Simone’s experiments in color and design, but Laura knows them only as a flourish and a blur when he casts them aside as inadequate” (19).

Simone Martini was born circa 1284, in Siena, and he died in 1344, in Avignon,  He was an important figure in Gothic painting who did more than any other artist to spread the influence of Sienese painting.  You can easily find detailed pictures of the triptych on line.  When I looked at details of the triptych, I could easily see the character Laura seated with a prayer book in her lap.  Who says we can’t learn anything from fiction? 

The language in the first chapter sounds to me a lot like the writing of the period.  Ward then goes onto a Dutch Master in 1668, a woman in England of 1775, to a photograph taken in 1864 London, to 1916, 2008, and finally a painting dated 2060.  The thread which ties all these tales together is the artistic sensibilities of the artist, the dedication of the subjects, and the sometimes nefarious dealers and gallery owners who sell the art.  The novel demonstrates that some things never change.

If the novel has a flaw it is the precociousness of some of the illiterate young women used as models.  It did not seem realistic to me.

I found some of the paintings mentioned in the novel, and I posted pictures on my blog.  Girl Reading by Katie Ward makes an interesting read for anyone intrigued by art, the peculiarities of the artistic sensibility, and the role models play in a great painting.  4-1/2 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.