Lisette learns, and art endures

LISETTE’S LIST. Susan Vreeland. Random. 414 pages. $27.
LISETTE’S LIST. Susan Vreeland. Random. 414 pages. $27.

In 1937, a young married couple, Lisette and Andre Honore Roux, move from Paris to the village of Roussillon in Provence. Raised in an orphanage and passionate about art, Lisette is reluctant to give up a possible apprenticeship in a Paris gallery, and she can’t understand why Andre, who is an officer of the “Guild of Encadreurs, the association of picture-frame craftsmen,” wants to give up his position to care for his sickly grandfather, Pascal.

“In the south of France, things happen as they should,” her husband insists. In Lisette’s List, by best-selling historical novelist Susan Vreeland, things happen that also amaze and illuminate.

Vreeland’s love of painters and painting, her meticulous research and the pitch-perfect descriptive talents that distinguished such books as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party are abundantly evident in her new novel.

“In the clarity after the rain, the valley appeared as a living version of Cezanne’s landscape,” she writes of Provence. “The terrain was divided into distinct shapes, each in a different hue — the striped chartreuse green of the vineyards, the solid darker green of vegetable plots, the golden grass of wheat fields, the sprays of pink cherry and white apple blossoms, the cultivated fields of sunflowers, their faces turned to the sun.”

Grandpere Pascal, who formerly mined ochre ore and sold paints, owns works by Cezanne, Pissarro, Picasso and Chagall. “We mined the ochres that made them,” he explains to Lisette. “I want you to understand how important they are so you will care for them.” He is proud of his small role in the creation of these paintings. “I had brought something out of the earth,” he says, “and it was used to make something beautiful.” Through these tales, Lisette begins to realize there are valuable lessons to be learned in the village of Roussillon. When Pascal exhorts her to “do the important things first,” she begins keeping “Lisette’s List of Hungers and Vows.” Her No. 1 item: “Love Pascal as a father.”

But in 1939, when de Gaulle declares war and the Nazis move deeper into the south of France, Pascal’s art collection is lost in the chaos. Lisette’s husband leaves to join the army, and she must endure dwindling supplies, limited food and unending loneliness. A kindly local bus driver takes her to meet Marc Chagall and his wife, who are living in a neighboring village. She’s inspired by the artistic whimsy and emotion in Chagall’s paintings.

“I glimpsed that the upside-down woman and houses represented contradictions,” Lisette muses. “The rooster cradling a woman questioned the belief of size and the capacity to protect and comfort, and the man in the sky shattered the certainty of gravity.”

Before the Chagalls flee to Paris, they encourage Lisette to keep looking for the paintings. Bravely dealing with intimidation, false leads and betrayals, she continues to search, while cutting a path to a new life for herself. Can she succeed in both quests? The final entry in Lisette’s list offers a hopeful way forward: “Love more. Love again. Love broadly. Love without reservation.”

Eugenia Zukerman reviewed this book for The Washington Post.