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Review: Mimi with the Watering Can

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I mentioned on Saturday that I am working my way through another one of Susan Vreeland’s books (I was so taken with Luncheon of the Boating Party that I searched for another book on her writing about artwork).  This book, Life Studies, is actually a collection of short stories.  The first one is called, Mimi with the Watering Can, and is based on Renoir’s painting, Girl with Watering Can.

In these stories the author has chosen to focus on the ordinary people of the time period, rather than on a particular artist. In fact in this short story, Renoir only has a token appearance.  He is captured by Mimi’s beauty and free spirit while watering the flowers in a friend’s garden, that he requests the opportunity to paint her later in the week.
The story instead focuses on Mimi’s father, Jerome – who in the beginning is rather melancholy and depressed.  His own father passed away just two short months ago and Jerome is becoming more philosophical.  He has been reading Ennui by Baudelaire and has begun to subscribe to the belief, what is the use?  He is content to stay inside all day and socialize with no one.  His wife tries to suggest otherwise.  She entices him to go with her to a garden party in Montmontre and he reluctantly agrees.  On the way to the house we are privy to his interior dialog, which adequately sums up his view on life:

From there, he could see the huge foundation for Sacre-Coeur, a basilica planned to be as magnificent as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.  Though it meant little to him, he didn’t particularly like that it would be so monumental.  Maybe none of it made any difference.  Another seven hundred years would go by in a blink and none of it would matter (page 9)

When he first arrives at the party his melancholy state is obvious to all, but slowly, as he watches his young daughter look in awe at the miracle of nature, he begins to realize that are some things in life that do matter.  By the end of the story our protagonist has decided that life is too short to waste, and he makes a conscious decision to be grateful for his family, friends, and the beauty of the world around him.
The plot of the story is simple, the characters few, and the theme transparent.  But the true joy of this story is the writer’s ability to craft ordinary life into extraordinary word pictures.  There were two passages in particular that resonated with me:

“A spider’s web,” Elise said.  “Look, Jerome.  How Beautiful.”

It was strung from a tree branch to two  places on a lilac bush.  The sunlight turned the silk iridescent.  How that tiny creature could launch himself into the void, spinning a filament of thin trust, and catch hold of something, anything, and build his three pointed kingdom from such a slender thread.”  – page 16

And then…..

There was nothing unusual about that watering can – tin turned bluish green, with a sprinkler head on the spout – yet he felt a tenderness toward it out of all proportion to its value.  How Mimi’s fingers, like little white  minnows, grasped its handle.  how she wielded it with an authority beyond her years.  It made no difference that the trickle of water drops falling on leaves and petals was a mere decoration and would never nourish the plant deep down in the earth where the roots searched for sustenance.  She had a job, a purpose.

If only he were a poet.  Or if Baudelaire could see her, and see inside him to his love for her, he wouldn’t have written about l’ennui.  he watched her dance through her enchanted world, arms out to catch the fleeting impossible, her world where sprinklings on petals mattered, and his heart followed her. — page 17

I have also enjoyed reading the short stories based on the works of Monet, Manet, Morisot, and VanGogh.  I look forward to completing the stories in this collection and savoring the author’s word pictures, as well as the masterpieces about which she writes.

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