Book Review: Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Hello, readers! I finally finished reading Lisette’s List after nearly two months! This is a book I picked up at last year’s Friends of the Library book sale, and it took me nearly a year to pick it up. I am glad that I can finally cross it off of my TBR. I know at least a few of you are eagerly awaiting my thoughts on this one, so I won’t chat much today. Let’s just dive into it!

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Lisette's List by Susan Vreeland coverTitle: Lisette’s List

Author: Susan Vreeland

Genre: Historical Fiction (WW2 and surrounding years)

Synopsis (from Goodreads): In 1937, young Lisette Roux and her husband, André, move from Paris to a village in Provence to care for André’s grandfather Pascal. Lisette regrets having to give up her dream of becoming a gallery apprentice and longs for the comforts and sophistication of Paris. But as she soon discovers, the hilltop town is rich with unexpected pleasures.

Pascal once worked in the nearby ochre mines and later became a pigment salesman and frame maker; while selling his pigments in Paris, he befriended Pissarro and Cézanne, some of whose paintings he received in trade for his frames. Pascal begins to tutor Lisette in both art and life, allowing her to see his small collection of paintings and the Provençal landscape itself in a new light. Inspired by Pascal’s advice to “Do the important things first,” Lisette begins a list of vows to herself (#4. Learn what makes a painting great). When war breaks out, André goes off to the front, but not before hiding Pascal’s paintings to keep them from the Nazis’ reach.

With German forces spreading across Europe, the sudden fall of Paris, and the rise of Vichy France, Lisette sets out to locate the paintings. Her search takes her through the stunning French countryside, where she befriends Marc and Bella Chagall, who are in hiding before their flight to America, and acquaints her with the land, her neighbors, and even herself in ways she never dreamed possible. Through joy and tragedy, occupation and liberation, small acts of kindness and great acts of courage, Lisette learns to forgive the past, to live robustly, and to love again.

Content Warnings/Things to be Aware of: Some nondescript sexual content, mentions of war and violence.

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My Thoughts:

I seem to be going through a lot of art-centric books these days. It started (approximately) with The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet, then Lisette’s Listand now I’ve reading Dance with Me by A.M. Heath, the first in a new series where each book will feature a different art form. I enjoy books that use art or something the characters are passionate about to shape the story, almost as if the element were a character itself. That certainly holds true for Lisette’s List.

There is so much going on in this book, with so many separate (yet connected) storylines. It is divided into several different ‘books’ within the book, similar to episodes. We watch about ten years of Lisette’s life, from the time she moves with her husband to Rousillion to when she finally returns to her beloved Paris for good. As is to be expected, so much happens in this time period. World War 2 begins, wreaks havoc on all of France, and eventually ends. Friends come and go, seasons are endured, and Lisette’s way of life and even her way of thinking shifts.

The list from the title is Lisette’s list of things she wants to accomplish in her lifetime. It grows and adapts just as she does, and is an interesting look inside her mind. However, it does not play as central a role as I expected. It is not something that you think about while reading the entire book, but I guess it made for an attention-grabbing title.

Lisette’s List is definitely a character-driven book. While there is always something going on, the overall message has more to do with Lisette’s personal development and the effect that events have on her. She grows, learns, adapts, and changes with the seasons of her life. I liked seeing this, but ultimately we see too much. Lisette undergoes multiple transformations, when one or two would have made a complete book. Perhaps if this had been split into two or more books, it would have been easier to digest.

Additionally, Lisette’s life is frequently shaped by things that happen ‘off the page’. The war is the biggest example of this. I appreciate the way Vreeland shows the effects of war on those who remain somewhat secluded, but at the same time, this adds to the feeling that nothing important is really happening. The letters Lisette receives from people outside the village, especially those who have gone to fight in the war, help this from time to time as we are offered glimpses of the action. However, Lisette remains largely in the dark about what is going on around her. She must fight for every shred of information, so by the time the reader learns something, it can be fourth hand information and lack a spark of interest.

The Verdict:

There are certainly plenty of things to appreciate in Lisette’s List, and for the most part it is an enjoyable read. However, I failed to connect with Lisette, which led me to feel like an outsider the entire time that I was reading. This is not always a bad thing, but it is not the expected effect in this particular book, and is a bit off-putting. I loved reading about the art and historical aspects, but not so much about Lisette’s interactions with her friends or everyday life. The story seemed to drag on far longer than necessary. The lessons of forgiveness, learning to be content, and respecting people for who they are were not lost on me but, at the same time, did not make a big impression. It’s not a “bad” book, but neither is it truly great. I recommend it to those who prefer to read slowly paced historical fiction that gets deeply into the character’s mind with less plot. If you want a book that will last you all summer and teach you a little about art and/or World War 2, this might be a hit.

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Obviously, this book is not exactly my cup of tea. Yet, I am still glad that I read it and I have no problem recommending it to anyone who might be interested in the topic and character-driven writing style.

Question of the Day: Do you prefer reading action-packed fiction, or character-driven fiction? *For an example of each: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is character-driven, while almost any classic mystery, such as those by Agatha Christie, is plot-driven.

My answer: It really depends on my mood and expectations for the book! I do enjoy getting to know characters very well, but I also like for there to be something interesting going on with a definite beginning and end, rather than just a slice-of-life type story.

 

Until the next chapter,

Jana

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