Gwen, a bold and spirited young English artist, defies convention and sets out to study in Paris, where she has a tumultuous affair with the inspiring, controlling sculptor Rodin. But as the relationship cools, Gwen feels lonely and adrift as she awaits the ever more infrequent visits from her lover. Attempting to restore her artistic vision and recapture her true self, Gwen pours out her soul onto a canvas, creating an intimate painting of a quiet corner of her attic room.
Lost, found, stolen, sold, and fought over, the painting enchants all who possess it. First it falls into the hands of Charlotte, a dreamy intellectual with artistic leanings–though little talent. In turn the work finds its way to the lovely, bright Stella; the destitute but willful Lucasta; self-sufficient Ailsa; and, finally, young, curious Gillian. All of whom long for a tranquil golden place such as the one depicted in the painting, a haven where they can “keep the world away.”
Praise for Keeping the World Away:
“Evocative . . . an apparently simple yet potent work of art.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“Highly recommended . . . One small painting, a still life of a corner of an attic room, is the thread that ties this moving novel together.”
–Library Journal (starred review)
“It is the painting’s power to evoke tranquility that Forster so effectively celebrates.”
“Haunting . . . revealing . . . exquisitely drawn.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“An intimate, subtly crafted, satisfying read.”
–Kirkus Reviews ... Read more
Customer Reviews (7)
Wondrous escapist reading... grace yourself
"As to being happy, don't you know, that when a picture is done, whatever it is, it might as well be as far as the artist is concerned-and in all the time he has taken to do it, it has only given him a second's pleasure..."~Gwen John, March 1902
Gwen John served as the great sculptor Rodin's muse, lover, and model. After his interest in her waned she created a small painting of a quiet attic room. As the torrid affair with Rodin sputtered out, the diminutive glimpse into a peaceful world gave Gwen "a second's pleasure", renewing her artistic spirit and regaining her confidence.
Margaret Forster casts the painting as her central character in Keeping the World Away, a semi-fictional saga that opens in days of Rodin and Gwen John's love affair.Capturing the essence of the artist, the painting showcases a simple scene--an attic room, a lace curtain, a jar of primroses on a table, a wicker chair with a parasol leaning against it, and a coat thrown over the woven back of the chair. The soulful creation brings more than a second's pleasure to Forster's additional characters as it literally shapes their destinies.
Effectively covering the span of the 20th century, Forster tracks the life of the painting as it delights Charlotte, an affected follower of the arts with a good eye but minimal talent. Found in a valise at Victoria Station, it spurs Charlotte to become a fringe participant in the art scene in Paris. Forster captures the essence of Charlotte's privileged pre-WWI life, and contrasts in handily in the succeeding chapters.
Stolen from Charlotte's family home, the painting finds its way to Stella, living with a wounded soldier from the Great War along the cliffs of Cornwall. Once amidst her possessions, the inanimate but vivid canvas fosters courage in Stella to move on and recapture her life as a nurse -- but more importantly a painter.
Handed off to a neighbor, the canvas graces the walls of a cottage as V-E day dawns in 1945, where Lucasta, the half-Gypsy, half-Cornish daughter of the neighbor prepares to go off to art school, having gazed at the attic scene for her entire life.
In the post-war years of Europe, the painting touches the lives of three more women.
After Lucasta's Bohemian post-war adventures in Paris, it lands in the shattered world of Ailsa, the wife of Lucasta's lover.Ailsa flees to Scotland, taking the canvas with her, and upon her return, it again creates turmoil in her life. Conversely, the simple portrait captivates Mme. Verlon, a latent artist, who buys it along with Ailsa's home.
In her twilight years, Madame meets another young struggling artist in Paris in the present day.Bequeathing the cherished painting to the young Gillian in her will, Madame recognizes in the last line of the novel, "The artist would think it was enough. She had painted it to keep the world away. If it helped others to do the same, her purpose was fulfilled."
Forster's novel also keeps the world away -her novel allows an escape, a retreat into lives where light and color reign supreme in the artistic souls ofeight different women, all seeking the same thing.
Julia Brantley, author of A Score Of Intervals
When most of us look at a painting, we will probably first notice the quality, possibly the depth, or even the emotion behind the brush strokes. We might like it (or not) and might even wonder what the artist was feeling at the time it was painted. What we likely won't consider is the impact the piece of art had on those who've had it in their possession.
In the fictional tale of a true-to-life work of art, _A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris_by Gwen John, author Margaret Forster weaves a story of several women whose lives were changed subtly, or not so, while the painting was in their possession. First, the story of the artist who carried great passion but was ever encouraged by her lover to be tranquil, and for a moment, at least, she might have captured it on canvas. And then by gift, theft, sale and inheritance many more women follow, each life touched by the picture of a little attic, a wickerwork chair, and a vase full of primroses.
I can't honestly say what I thought of this book as a whole. I was captivated by the story of Gwen John and still so by Charlotte, whose tale follows, but after those two, the women began to blend into one. Most of the characters are basically disappointed in men and most of humanity. If they weren't before they saw the painting, they were after. They seemed to retreat into themselves and solitude. Which is, I guess, the point with a title like Keeping the World Away. There was virtually no dialog and even when there was, it may only be a single line. I suppose you could say that it is enthralling to be so much within a mind, but the secluded minds began to lose any sort of "voice." If I put the book down for more than a moment, I would come back and not know who I was reading about without looking back again to see.
This is a captivating, yet lonely, tale.
Armchair Interviews says: A unique use of a painting to several people's stories
A worthwhile read
Bestselling memoirist, biographer and historical novelist Margaret Forster hasn't published anything in the U.S. (she lives in London) in quite some time. KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY is her first work for an American audience in 15 years --- and you wonder why. Although her writing can sometimes seem slow or unnecessarily drawn out, it is only because Forster has taken the time to construct a quietly resonant story --- one that allows for a stroll, a silent meditation, a well-needed nap between chapters. This isn't the type of book you can sit down and digest in one sitting, but one that requires thinking beyond what is written in its pages in order to grasp its multi-layered meaning.
In the prologue, a young girl named Gillian (the same Gillian, readers will notice, who is the subject of the book's final section, although at an older age) is on a field trip to the Tate Gallery with her class. After looking at the paintings and being captivated by their presence, she finds herself wondering about the lives of the paintings themselves. "I was wondering where it had been, who had owned it, who had looked at it," she says. "I mean, what effect did it have on the people who have looked at it? What has it meant to them, how have they looked at it, did they feel the same as I did, did they see what I saw...?" These are the questions that shape the remainder of the novel.
Although KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY takes a while to dive into, readers will soon get the hang of the plot's formula, and with each subsequent chapter, the book's intentions will unfold on an increasingly deeper level. The first section focuses on Gwen John, a lonely, often destitute painter (both in the story and in real life) and the sister of the more famous artist, Augustus John. In these chapters, Forster paints a vivid portrait of Gwen's reclusive character, her passion for painting and her illicit affair with the sculptor Rodin. Forster also vaguely describes Gwen's thoughts and feelings during the time she created the painting of her room, although she takes great care in not spelling anything out for her readers so that they can form their own conclusions. It's this painting that then becomes the subject of the following five sections, named after each of the women who comes into contact with the painting: Charlotte, Stella, Lucasta, Ailsa and Gillian.
As the painting is passed on from woman to woman, and from generation to generation, it affects each lady (and the people she loves or is involved with) in both similar and disparate ways. For many of the characters, the simple but expressive painting represents a longing for something different, a door to another life. For both Charlotte and Stella, the painting initially made them want the life of an artist, one that would enable them to squire away their worries in favor of putting paint on a canvas. For Ailsa, the painting initially represented everything she had given up for her marriage --- a marriage that suffered through much unhappiness and many affairs before her husband's death. No matter what the circumstances are, readers will relish in learning each woman's thoughts on where the painting came from, who painted it and what it was supposed to "mean." These observations offer great insight into each of the character's personalities, her hopes and her dreams.
By anchoring the story around an inanimate yet incredibly powerful object, Forster raises timeless questions about the nature of art. What makes art art? Why are the lives of starving artists who are most often poor, depressed and discontent seen as glamorous and therefore paths that should be envied? What makes a work of art meaningful? Does meaning stem from the artist's intention or what the beholder takes away from it? Can an artist live a well-balanced life (practice monogamy, raise a family, have other interests) or must he/she devote his/her complete self to his/her art? While each of the characters attempts to answer these questions, they stumble often, proving that there is no right or wrong answer, which is what makes art --- and its creation --- so alluring and the book a worthwhile read.
After finishing KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY, readers may not feel bowled over...but that's not the type of book this is. Instead, many will probably feel grateful for the opportunity to take a break from the day-to-day to ponder the mysteries of art and to read a story about an actual painting --- and how it changed the lives of its owners --- that is still hanging in the city of Sheffield's art gallery to this day.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
An imaginative riff on Gwen John's legacy
British author Forster's latest novel centers around a small, unsigned Gwen John painting and the women who own it over the next century. Forster's posits an earlier version of the actual painting, "The Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris," and imagines its genesis.
Gwen John (1876 - 1939) rarely showed her work and was best known as the sister of Augustus John until well after her death. The painting Forster has chosen was one of a series. The artist kept the final painting and never exhibited it.
The book begins with the death of Gwen's mother when she and Augustus are children. Forster perfectly captures a child's intense, bewildered grief, full of energy and fear. "Gwen longed to be outside, anywhere. Inside the walls pressed in on her and the ceilings lowered toward her and the doors came to meet her. She felt she would burst....'Gwendoline has not wept a single tear,' she heard Aunt Lily say to their father."
After a lonely childhood with her chilly and remote father, Gwen goes off to s study painting, first in London, then in Paris. Aloof, determined and ambitious, she hides a mind racing "with millions of violent and spectacular thoughts and ideas, and in the center of herself she stored a passion which might terrify people if they suspected it."
This dormant passion is unleashed, finally, in Paris, in a torrid love affair with the very much married sculptor, Rodin.But Rodin finds Gwen's towering passion and impulsiveness exhausting. He counsels tranquility and discipline, but as he withdraws from her she becomes more desperate and demanding.
She begins work on a small painting of the corner of her room, a table and chair, a small bunch of primroses. "She wanted to record how things might have been and so nearly were. Contentment, peace, a life lived sweetly and quietly. No mess, no trouble, no agonizing. The person who lived in this room was in perfect control of her emotions." This is how Rodin wishes her to be and how she wishes to present herself to him.
But Rodin does not come and the painting does not quite succeed. She starts another and gives the first to a friend. Who packs it in a valise, which goes astray, never to be returned.
But when young, ungainly Charlotte Falconer sets eyes on the painting - found in a valise left at Victoria Station - she must have it. The valise is not claimed and Charlotte hangs it in her little room, imagining herself an artist in a garret, rather than a wealthy young lady whose fashionable mother despairs of her.
And as the years pass, leading to World War I then World War II and up to the present day, the painting - stolen, sold, given away - makes its way through a succession of women. Many people, particularly men, see little in it. Regarding it as pretty or insignificant, even lonely and depressing, these people are mystified at the feeling it arouses in others.
The women who own it, most of them with artistic yearnings, find inspiration and comfort. Some view it and feel their own inadequacy as artists; embarking on new paths in life. Others are inspired to work harder and define their own artistic voices.
Forster makes serendipitous connections between the painting's owners so the reader follows, glancingly, the turns their lives have taken after the painting has passed on. While fashions change, people fall in love, suffer, find peace and die, the painting arouses feelings that connect each generation to the one before and on back to the artist.
The writing is painterly and immediate, immersing the reader in each woman's life and circumstances and her place at that moment in history and that stage of her life. Some of the owners are youthful and full of ambition, others are wives, mothers, widows, grandmothers, carrying the baggage of a lifetime and girding themselves for change.
The novel, like the painting that inspired it, has an understated timelessness, which encompasses the moments of energy and emotion and subsumes them into a larger lyric of life.
A Fine and Thoughtful Novel
Keeping the World Away is a well written novel which explores art--the image, the artist and the observers, caretakers and lovers of the image.Also explored is human intimacy, love, fear and courage. Nothing is simple in this book; intimacy is complex, as is the drive to create.Swirling around the various stories of women struggling to be quiet with themselves, their art,their love, is the theme of synchronicity in life and success.
Because this is a complex book, I recommend it to all independent readers, especially those interested in art and love..... There are no right answers or denouement in this book, and so, I believe, it will make a great Book Club read.It has consistent 5 stars in AmazonUK and 4 in AmazonCa.Please read it and pass the word on.
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