Off the Shelf: The Resurgence of Fiction
One of the first big fiction books I read as a teenager was “Lust for Life” by Irving Stone. It was a biographical novel based on the life of the great painter, Vincent van Gogh. I soon read all of Irving Stone’s novels and that started a life-long fondness for nice, hefty biographical novels.
This genre has never gone out of style, but does seem to be in resurgence with authors such as Daisy Goodwin, Nancy Horan, Paula McLain and Christina Baker Kline.
Kline’s most recent novel after her New York Times bestseller, “Orphan Train,” concerns the life of Christina Olson. That name may be unknown to most, but she is very famous for her appearance in one of America’s best-known modern paintings, Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” This realistic painting depicts an old house sitting on the top of a hill of grass and a woman pulling herself towards it through the grass.
In “A Piece of the World,” Kline tells the story of Christina living with her family in Cushing, Maine. At age of 10 she is struck by a debilitating illness which left her unable to walk. When only she and her brother are left in their run-down farmhouse, she meets Andrew Wyeth who wants to paint her home. Over the next 20 years he spends each summer painting the house and using Christina as his muse.
Christina’s life is hard and the book reflects that. “A Piece of the World” is a stark retelling of the events behind a painting that is just as stark and just as haunting.
”The Other Einstein” by Marie Benedict is another biographical novel about a little known figure in history, Mileva Mari, known to her family as Mitza. Mitza attended the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich where she met fellow classmate, Albert Einstein. Determined to make a mark for herself in the sciences, her relationship with Einstein instead put her into the shadows. Exactly how much she contributed to the theory of relativity is debated, but as Benedict’s novel shows, Mitza’s ambitions are sidelined by the culture and by her husband.
Other biographical novels are: “Georgia” by Dawn Tripp about artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, “Victoria” by Daisy Goodwin about the young Queen Victoria, “The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain about Hadley Hemingway, “The Fortune Hunter” by Daisy Goodwin about the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan about Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Dream Lover” by Elizabeth Berg about George Sand, and “Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain about Beryl Markham.