M.J. Rose’s lyrical, gothic and yet romantic take on life in Lewis Comfort Tiffany’s Tiffany Art Foundation focuses on scandal, heartbreak and romance – and the life of one particular student.
Jenny Bell is a decent but poor art student living in New York in the early 1920s who refuses to paint in anything but haunted chromatic tones, even when presented with a gorgeous, colorful day. Encouraged by her reckless, effervescent and much more talented best friend Millicent – Minx – Deerings, who is also an artist but comes from a rich art-collecting family, Jenny finds herself thrown into the whirl of art’s high society when Minx pushes her into accepting a job as an illustrator with the New York Herald-Tribune. Jenny is terrified that her past will be revealed by the assignment, which brings back terrible, triggering memories of what happened in her childhood; but she accepts the job in order to fund her dream of visiting Paris.
When Minx applies to join the Tiffany Art Foundation’s colony at Laurelton Hall in upstate New York for eight weeks, she also takes one of Jenny’s sketches and applies for her to go as well. They’ve both been accepted, though Jenny is horrified that Minx has done this behind her back; but given Minx’s forceful personality, Jenny has no idea how to tell Minx no.
Settling in to work and play at Laurelton Hall, the two women become embroiled in separate entanglements. Jenny develops a deep friendship – that soon develops into more – with Louis Comfort’s grandson Oliver, and encourages him to pursue the artistic pursuits he loves instead of burying himself in the family’s business empire.
Meanwhile, Minx begins a relationship with Edward Wren, a lower-class painter of minimal talent and bootlegger, for the thrills, but begins to fall for him for real. Jenny hates Edward but endures him because Minx adores him. As months pass, Jenny becomes the target of a blackmailer and supernatural elements begin to come into play; it seems that someone wants Jenny gone from the foundation, to keep her from using the favor she’s won with the Tiffanys to win the foundation’s prize money. Both Minx and Jenny have deep, dark secrets they want to keep under wraps – Minx from her college years, Jenny from her childhood. They’re in a race against time to keep those details from exploding into the present and ruining their lives.
Tiffany Blues is a surprisingly smooth, surprisingly fast read that combines mystery, romance and historical character study into a unique package. Even though it takes us a hundred pages to get to Laurelton Hill those pages don’t feel wasted.
Jenny is a winning heroine, a true and completely interesting woman who’s endured a lot, which makes her progress sweet and rewarding. Minx is fun, and Oliver is a solid secondary character, though he mostly seems to exist simply to hold Jenny up and convince her through wild gestures that colors are good and painting with them is important (nobody tell the monochromists!).
Sometimes the stories’ trappings can be goofy – such as Jenny’s deep and intense need to only paint in black and white because of her past trauma, and much of the spiritualist hokum that seems to be inserted for no good reason other than it’s a way to extend the fourth act and include a cameo by Edison, complete with ‘ghost-calling telephone’ – but they’re so solidly grounded in reality that they end up working most of the time. There’s a lot of detail put into the story, and the author’s research has clearly been painstaking, from the peek into life in the highfalutin’ world of the Comfort-Tiffanys to the deprived conditions of the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women. World War One hangs over the novel, permeating everything that’s happening with a low-key sense of doom.
Although I’d expected the mystery surrounding Jenny’s most personal pain to be dragged out a bit longer, the crux of it is revealed within the first hundred pages of the story. The side-plot that absorbs most of the mystery isn’t terribly gripping, and the villian’s reason for removing Jenny from the contest is a little bit odd. Some twists do extend the surprises, but they feel less meaty than the first.
Yet overall Tiffany Blues rewards the reader’s attention with a sensory experience that’s recommendable. A fine trip back to the twenties and a time-period that’s rarely explored, it’s not perfect but it does engage.