The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman: A Novel

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Overview

New York Times bestselling author Sena Jeter Naslund explores the lives of successful creative women—their devotion to work and family; their fears; their loves—in an enthralling novel that resonates across time and place

It's midnight on St. James Court, in which stands a fountain sculpture of Venus rising from the sea. Kathryn Callaghan has just finished a draft of her novel about renowned painter Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, a survivor of the French Revolution. Kathryn remains ...

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The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

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Overview

New York Times bestselling author Sena Jeter Naslund explores the lives of successful creative women—their devotion to work and family; their fears; their loves—in an enthralling novel that resonates across time and place

It's midnight on St. James Court, in which stands a fountain sculpture of Venus rising from the sea. Kathryn Callaghan has just finished a draft of her novel about renowned painter Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, a survivor of the French Revolution. Kathryn remains haunted by Élisabeth's experiences—revealed here in a novel-within-a-novel, interleaved with the chronicle of one day in Kathryn's life. Despite being separated by time, place, and culture, Kathryn and Élisabeth possess similar gifts and burdens. And before another midnight arrives, Kathryn will confront personal danger as frightening as that which Élisabeth faced during the Reign of Terror. Each woman will be called upon and tested; each will, like Venus, rise triumphantly above the expectations of her world.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist on THE FOUNTAIN OF ST JAMES COURT
“[A] lively and pointed variation on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man…this is an incisive and keenly pleasurable novel about women artists overcoming adversity to create “joyful work” that celebrates life’s beauty and wonder.”
Alabama Writer's Forum News and Reviews on FOUNTAIN/PORTRAIT
Sena Jeter Naslund’s eloquent language, her mastery of technique have the power to transport readers from the inner turmoil of a successful contemporary writer to the harsh realities of life among the splendor of eighteenth-century French society. The lyrical, poetic rendering of her prose is magical.
Seattle Times on FOUNTAIN/PORTRAIT
“[U]nexpectedly addictive. Naslund once again creates memorable characters, surprising scenarios and astute notions on living life with intention.”
Library Journal
09/15/2013
A novel within a novel—hmm. Writer Kathryn "Ryn" Callaghan, age 70 and now thrice divorced, has given the manuscript of her latest work to friend Leslie to read. The novel depicts the life of French artist élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who narrates her life from rags to riches as she becomes portraitist of Queen Marie Antoinette, then flees France because of the Revolution. (Vigée-Le Brun is also a character in Naslund's novel Abundance.) There's the making of pathos and much excitement here, but élisabeth relates her story in a monotone that keeps her life from coming alive and would have made for rather tedious reading had it been book length. Meanwhile, Ryn spends her time ruminating over her past and her three failed marriages (and she's not the only character in The Fountain who's married abusive or otherwise unsuitable men). The only drama in Ryn's life is the return of her son's ex-lover Jerry, who is truly menacing. Fortunately for Ryn and son Humphrey, Jerry is married and living in Sweden with his hubby. VERDICT Ryn's fears for her son and her confrontation with Jerry as Humphrey is about to return home might make for a catchy short story. But as a full-length book, this doesn't really work. [See Prepub Alert, 3/4/13.]—Edward Cone, New York
Kirkus Reviews
Despite a subtitle that clearly refers to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf echoes far louder in this novel within a novel following one day in the life of a 60-ish author of a fictional biography about the 18th-century portraitist of Marie Antoinette. In contemporary Louisville, Ky., thrice divorced Kathryn Callaghan walks her newly completed manuscript over to Leslie, a musician and fellow writer with whom she's been best friends since they grew up in Montgomery, Ala. African-American Leslie's mother participated in the bus boycott. Leslie has recently moved to Louisville, and soon, Kathryn introduces her to another dear friend Daisy. Walking with her husband, Daisy feels a sense of danger when she notices a car drive by. Kathryn goes home and thinks about her beloved gay son, Humphrey, now living abroad, safe from his dangerous former lover. In the morning, Kathryn takes a walk with Humphrey's father, Peter, her second husband. She thinks some more about her life, connecting deep emotions to literary references. She spends her day partially preparing for a possible visit from a potential new love interest, talking with her friends and contemplating her life in literary terms. Meanwhile, Leslie, along with the reader, is reading Kathryn's first-person novel about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, a fiction also heavily invested in analyzing what it is to be an artist. Kathryn's somewhat stiff prose describes Elisabeth's early childhood as an artistic prodigy, her difficulties after her father's death, her unhappy marriage, her fortuitous meeting with Marie Antoinette, whom she defends as misunderstood, not unlike Naslund in her 2006 historical novel Abundance. Like Kathryn, Elisabeth's love life never mattered as much as her art. But while Elisabeth and her only daughter became estranged before the daughter's untimely death, Kathryn proves herself willing to go to any lengths to protect her perfect son. Leslie's compliment that Kathryn's work is "lined with silken sentences" holds true for Naslund (Adam and Eve, 2010). Nevertheless, the tone of literary high-mindedness and self-importance grows wearing after a while.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061579509
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 673,985
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund

Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.

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    1. Hometown:
      Louisville, Kentucky
    1. Education:
      B.A., Birmingham-Southern College; M.A., Ph.D. University of Iowa Writers' Workshop

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 17, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    'The Fountain of St. James Court; or Portrait of the Artist as a

    'The Fountain of St. James Court; or Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman' is a beautiful story of the intertwining lives of a contemporary writer - Kathryn Callaghan - and the historic painter - Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. Kathryn has written a novel about the artist and her life during the French Revolution. Kathryn becomes so wrapped up in Elisabeth's life and the time period of eighteenth-century Europe that she's finding it hard to come back to her own life in modern day America.

    This novel is essentially a story-within-a-story, telling the tales of two separate yet connected main characters. Kathryn Callaghan is a modern writer who has decided to write a novel about the life of Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. As Kathryn delves further into Elisabeth's life and the time period in which she lived, she finds herself connected to the painter in ways she never expected. Aside from Kathryn's modern day story, we also get to read about Elisabeth's life - her own story - of how she lived, painted, and her achievements. The two women are actually quite similar despite the fact that they are separated by centuries. Both Kathryn and Elisabeth are driven artists who fight to live the life they dreamed of by practicing their crafts of writing and painting. Both women go through difficult and trying times alongside their joy and achievements, which makes them incredibly realistic and accessible to the reader. The use of a novel-within-a-novel device was an interesting choice by the author and I wondered if it would work out well or turn out to be confusing to the reader. The author manages to write both women's stories with incredible detail and description so they are easily identified from one another without confusion - and yet the reader is able to see how much the two are alike. The writing was very well done with a natural flow and an engaging narrative that drew me in from the first pages. Highly recommended for fans of both contemporary and historical fiction!

    Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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