In her captivating historical novel, Lisette’s List (Random House), Susan Vreeland, The New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, takes readers by the hand and guides them, with assured steps and astute historical knowledge, through the tumultuous, war-torn, years of 1937 to 1948 in Europe, depicting horrific attempts by the Nazis to purge Europe of what they deem “degenerate” art, setting fire to precious works and stealing the pieces they want for themselves.
Lisette Roux, an avid art lover, reluctantly leaves Paris to accompany her husband, André, to the village of Roussillon in Provence to take care of his ailing grandfather, Pascal. Lisette doubts she will survive for long in a rural village, where not a single gallery is in sight, the “raucous cackle” of roosters awakens her at dawn, and cushions are rare because the “Roussillonnais do not care much about comfort of the buttocks.”
What Lisette is unaware of yet is that Pascal’s small house, where walls display seven precious paintings by Picasso, Cézanne and Pissarro, among others, will soon feel like her own art gallery of sorts, each painting evoking fond memories of a better time, when the younger Pascal mined ochre from the nearby mines, sold pigments to merchants in Paris and, in exchange for precious paintings, supplied the painters with much-needed frames to display their painting at the first Impressionist exposition in Paris.
The Nazi apparatus spreads across Europe, Paris falls, André goes to the front to fight, and Roussillon gears up for a German invasion. Grief is sometimes overstated here and begins to feel repetitive and threatens to lose its impact when Lisette, alone and deprived of the company of her husband and precious paintings, which André wisely hides before leaving for war, is forced to fend for herself. She learns how to plant vegetables, make cheese, bake marzipan, contend with betrayal, and depend on friends to keep alive her dwindling embers of hope for André’s return.
Lisette, in reply to Pascal to, “Do the important things first,” creates her own “List of Hungers and Vows,” which she crosses off one by one as the story progresses. Yet, despite the title and the prominent space Lisette’s list occupies, the advancing engine of the story is Lisette’s search for the paintings Pascal left in her care. A lengthy, adventurous, and educational exploration of the scenic countryside will lead to a chance encounter with the Jewish Marc and Bella Chagall, who were forced to hide in the suburbs of Roussillon, before fleeing to America.
Vreeland’s exploration of the emotional and societal influence of art and her passionate descriptions of the countryside, with its rich scents and colors, the ochre mines and brutal mistral, but especially the vivid depiction of paintings, are the most pleasurable parts of the novel. Paul Cézanne tells the young Pascal that “art is religion. It is created with soul. How you appreciate a thing is soul.” Vreeland’s appreciation of the soul of art is fully evident in Lisette’s List.