A Piece of the World
A Piece of the World tells the story of Christina Olson, a physically disabled woman who spends her entire life in a small, coastal town in Maine. No one expects much of her, but for twenty years, she serves as muse to artist Andrew Wyeth, and is immortalized in his painting Christina’s World.
Weakened as the result of an undiagnosed childhood illness, Christina never walks well. She falls frequently, making her an object of pity from those who know her. She dreams of something more, something that will take her away from the family farm, but life is cruel, and denies her a chance at happiness.
One summer, Christina is certain she’s met the man of her dreams, but his family doesn’t think the crippled daughter of a Swedish immigrant is good enough for their golden boy. He leaves her without so much as a letter, leaving it to a mutual friend to make his excuses. From that moment on, Christina becomes a bitter, cynical woman, which makes her quite hard to like. Although I sympathized with her hurt feelings, I wanted her to grow beyond them.
Only her older brother, Al is completely loyal to Christina, and eventually, even his steadfastness is tested. Like her, Al dreams of leaving the farm to start a family of his own, but Christina guilts him into remaining by her side. After all, their parents are dead and their brothers have left home, so who will care for her now that she is completely unable to walk? Part of me wanted to Al to leave anyway. Christina certainly doesn’t treat him very well, and I really wanted him to find love and happiness, at the same time as I admired his willingness to stand by his sister in spite of her ill-tempered ways.
When Christina is around thirty years old, Betsy, a young woman from town, introduces her to painter Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth is immediately taken by Christina, Al, and the ramshackle farm they occupy. Soon, he sets up a studio in one of the house’s unused rooms and begins a series of paintings inspired by Christina.
A Piece of the World had a fair amount of potential, and for the most part, the book lived up to my expectations, although I sometimes felt the author spent too much time discussing the endless stream of daily chores Christina and her brother perform. True, it gives readers a sense of the smallness of Christina’s life, but it becomes monotonous pretty quickly.
I also wish the storytelling had been a bit more linear. Instead, the narrative jumps back and forth in time, something I usually enjoy when the author is able to make it clear when key events happen. But here, I was often unsure of the chronological order of events.
Aside from these things, I enjoyed learning more about Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth. True, Andrew doesn’t get a lot of page time, but the effect he has on Christina is plain to see. The two of them do not become romantically involved, as Andrew marries Betsy pretty early on, but their friendship is a constant in Christina’s life. I believe she finally comes to feel truly valued by someone who doesn’t wish to change her at all.
Parts of the novel are bleak, but this works well, as Christina’s existence is far from happy. There are glimmers of joy, and I appreciated them all the more because of the overall sadness of the story. Ms. Kline was able to make me feel like I was really getting to know Christina and those around her, and, though it wasn’t always easy, I found myself admiring Christina’s strength and fortitude by the end of the novel.
If you love historical fiction that deals with artists and their muses, I think you’ll enjoy this latest offering from Christina Baker Kline. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s definitely worth the read.