It’s a Big Universe, Everything Happens Somewhere: —Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe”
When I’m reviewing a book, I have a little rubric I follow. (Well, I always mean to follow it anyway…) I think about plot, and about structure. I think about style and setting. And most of all, I think about characterization. Do the characters change and grow? Do I like them? Or at least care about their fate? Do I miss them when their story is done?
Every once in a while—very rarely but it happens—there is an unusual additional character, a subtle but pervasive entity so strong it has its own identity and even plays an important role in the story. It’s the setting, but not just any setting. Even in the most carefully built world, or the most perfectly described location, the setting is where things happen, not how they happen. But now and then, that setting takes a bigger hand in the action. The whole Star Wars universe is a setting, but Hogwarts School is a character, one which plays an important role in Harry Potter’s story. The city of London is the setting for everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to Nick Hornby. But London doesn’t play a living, active role like Ankh-Morpork, the City in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
“Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it’s the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it’s just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let’s just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.”― Terry Pratchett, Mort
In all of the different times visited by the time-traveling academics in Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Marys, History itself is the elephant in the room, looming, waiting to pounce on the unwary. In each of these tales, the setting is more than just a “where”. It’s an actual agent of change. Of course, it isn’t every single setting and every scene of the story that acts, but usually one piece of the world—a magic school, a special city, a space ship, even a forest like the Enchanted Forest in Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons or Forest, the pissy and actively hostile woods of Lois Lowry’s Messenger.
As I was reading the Patricia Sands’ Love in Provence series, I realized that the setting itself, Provence, is a subtle but powerful force. In her newest release, Drawing Lessons, the setting has moved slightly to the edges of Provence that border the Alps near Arles and the vast river delta of the Camargue. My review below might be a bit early, but I just couldn’t wait to tell you about Patricia Sands’ beautiful new story about the healing power of friendship, art, food, and what they all add up to—love. I’d encourage you to pre-order now. And while you’re waiting, you might want to take a look at her Love in Provence series.
Or just subscribe to her newsletter, and you can let her gorgeous photos of France, travel stories, and guided tours show why the settings in her novels are so important.
Blurb: Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands
Sixty-two-year-old Arianna arrives in the South of France for a two-week artists’ workshop full of anticipation but burdened by guilt. Back home in Toronto, she has been living with the devastating diagnosis of her husband’s dementia and the heartbreak of watching the man she has loved for decades slip away before her eyes. What does her future hold without Ben? Before her is a blank canvas.
Encouraged by her family to take some time for herself, she has traveled to Arles to set up her easel in the same fields of poppies and sunflowers that inspired Van Gogh. Gradually, she rediscovers the inner artist she abandoned long ago. Drawing strength from the warm companionship and gentle wisdom of her fellow artists at the retreat—as well as the vitality of guest lecturer Jacques de Villeneuve, an artist and a cowboy—Arianna searches her heart for permission to embrace the life in front of her and, like the sunflowers, once again face the light.
Book Title: Drawing Lessons
Author: Patricia Sands
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Length: 354 pages
Release Date: 1 October 2017 (available for preorder)
My review: 5 out of 5 stars for Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands
What do you do after your happily-ever-after? Arianna Papadoupoulos-Miller has already had the great love of her life. She and her beloved husband Ben raised their children, welcomed their grandchildren, and worked hard to make their family restaurant a success. Just as they’re poised to reap the rewards of all that, they receive devastating news. Ben is diagnosed with a rapidly deteriorating form of dementia that robs him of his memories and leaves him in a vegetative state with nothing left of the person he’d once been. Arianna is left in limbo—not yet a widow, but without the love that formed the center of her life and her identification—she’s also lost so much of her identity that she retreats to a shell where the only emotion she allows herself is grief.
But the family that she and Ben had nurtured refuses to let her life end with her husband’s decline. They encourage her to turn back to an earlier love, the art career she’d abandoned decades earlier when she joined Ben in running their restaurant. Reluctantly she agrees to apply for attendance at a two-week art workshop in Arles, France, chosen because of its association with her art idol, Van Gogh, but also because she and Ben had never been there and so she would be making new memories.
But despite her brave attempt, Arianna finds herself closed off from the art she’d once loved, consumed by grief, but also by shame and anger. She’s prepared to give up on the course and return home. As she hesitates, the other workshop students and artists reach out to her. But just as much, she finds that the setting—with its beautiful old towns, history, culture, and especially its food and scenery—reaches out directly to her soul. Like the sunflowers that turn incrementally to face the sun, she slowly and reluctantly opens to possibilities and even to love.
Drawing Lessons is a book that takes on difficult subjects. Is it right to embrace new experiences, visit new places, take up new passions, when your old life is still unresolved? Does romance belong to older women? Can new love—beautiful, romantic, love in all its fragile beauty—be right when the husband you’ve loved for four decades is still alive?
Starting with scenes showing what Arianna has lost—the love and support of the man who knows her better than anyone else—Drawing Lessons sets a deliberately slow and careful pace. As family traditions and normal life disappear, Arianna’s world becomes a sterile place. Friends, companionship, even the Thanksgiving dinner they all loved are abandoned.
What I loved about Drawing Lessons is the way Arianna is seduced back to life by the beauty of the French countryside, the stimulation of the food, the other students, and slowly, incrementally, her art.
“Fields exploded with the bright colors of purple-pink valerian, yellow broom, and red poppies, lending an almost festive air to the landscape. She inhaled the colors, already planning her painting. How could she not?”
Their workshop is visited by Jacques de Vileneuve, a famous artist who also invites them to be his guests and experience his other passion, as gardian (cowboy) in the Camargue river delta preserves. I enjoyed learning about the Camargue, with its iconic Camarguais white horses, colorful flamingos, famous bulls, and the gardians‘ traditional life. It was easy to see how Arianna would be captivated by the setting, and especially by Jacques. But I also loved the well-developed three dimensional characters of her fellow students. They are a diverse group whose mutual reservations about each other slowly gell into true friendship over shared meals, experiences, and art.
Drawing Lessons is a different kind of love story. But if you like romance with complex, believable, mature characters in a gorgeous setting—plus great food!—I highly recommend it. I just have to warn you that you’ll be VERY hungry by the time you’re done.
***I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***