Synopsis from Goodreads: Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color.
It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women’s division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered.
Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.
My Rating: 4/5 stars
My Review: Historical fiction author Susan Vreeland has done it again! In her latest novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel, Vreeland creates a wonderfully compelling story of an artist and the world she lived and worked in. This fascinating story traces sixteen years of Clara Driscoll’s life between 1892 and 1908, the years she served as head of the Women’s Department at the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Vreeland asserts in her novel that it was in fact Clara Driscoll and not Louis Comfort Tiffany who hit upon the idea for the now famous Tiffany lamps!
Vreeland does not make this radical claim without proof and true to form she has woven this particular story around extant historical documentation. In this instance, Vreeland was able to use Clara Driscoll’s own words as expressed in her letters which were discovered in 2005. Vreeland’s novel is filled with details and descriptions of life in New York City. In fact, these descriptions are one of the novel’s greatest strengths; Vreeland’s ability to create such incredible images with her words gives the reader the opportunity to completely understand what life was like for an unmarried woman living and working in turn of the century New York.
Clara Driscoll’s time at the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company was not just about her creation and designing the leaded glass lamps but also about the creation and flourishing of the Women’s Department with Clara as its head. In a time when women barely had any rights at all, Clara Driscoll saw that her girls earned a fair wage and were treated with respect. Admittedly, these issues were not always easy ones and Vreeland expertly deals with the social aspects of women in the workplace.
Vreeland also deals with the personal struggles and sacrifices Clara and her girls made during their time with the Tiffany Company. For instance, per company policy, all of the women working for Louis Comfort Tiffany had to remain unmarried. This policy becomes problematic for many of the women but especially for Clara who constantly struggles with her need to be recognized as a true artist and her desire to be married. This policy turns into a very clever way for Vreeland to develop the story lines of some of the minor characters, many of which are incredibly delightful and well developed.
Another of Vreeland’s greatest strengths lies in her ability to describe the leaded glass making processes without becoming bogged down in technical jargon. All of the descriptions are expertly woven into the plot line so that they become a part of the novels’ fabric and not independent or boring descriptions of glass making. As you proceed through the novel you find yourself holding your breath waiting to find out if a new process or procedure for creating a lamp works or if it will prove to be a total failure. As with all of Vreeland’s historical fiction, the reader becomes completely invested in the characters and their lives. You celebrate the victories just as Clara and her girls did and cry when any one of them experiences either a personal or professional loss
This book is beyond being worth your time and energy as a reader; it is a must read if you love historical fiction! Vreeland is a master storyteller and even if you know nothing about Tiffany and Company, the leaded glass industry, or women’s rights in turn of the century New York, you will love this novel.