Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
Published by: Random House Publishing Group
Published on: March 20, 2012
Page Count: 448
Genre: Adult historical fiction
My Reading Format: Advanced reading PDF by Netgalley
Available Formats: Hardcover or Audio CD


My Review: 

In 1892 Clara Driscoll, a recently widowed woman, walks in the door of Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in search of a job that will help her support herself. The company and many others in New York City at that time had the rule that married women were not employable. Clara had worked for Mr. Tiffany prior to her marriage, and was ready to return to work after her husband's death and start over. Mr. Tiffany hires Clara to help him prepare stained glass windows for a chapel at the upcoming Chicago World's Fair, develop a new product (Tiffany lamps), and manage the women's department. Clara is no-nonsense, capable and in charge. She's also sensitive, aware of the injustices around her, and a loyal and loving friend. These characteristics are important as the story unfolds. 

In some ways Clara is glad to be out of her unhappy marriage, and she becomes married to her work. She develops close friendships with her fellow boarders where she rents a room, and enjoys the artists with whom she both lives and works. Clara develops a sincere fondness for many of her female employees, and counsels them at times on life outside the walls of Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Just as Clara is earning the respect she deserves from Mr. Tiffany, she abruptly leaves her job as she believes she's found the right man to marry, the brother of one of her boarder friends. The almost-marriage quickly turns disastrous, and Clara again finds herself returning to ask Mr. Tiffany for her old job back, and he is happy for her return. 

Throughout her career at Tiffany she struggles against the men in management positions unwilling to grant Clara and her department the respect they deserve and the proper creative license they need to have to do their best work. Though Mr. Tiffany owns the company and enjoys collaborating on designs with Clara when he can, the men in the hierarchy below Mr. Tiffany and above Clara manage to keep the hands of both of them tied. And outside the company, artists' unions which allow only men to become members are making rules that the rest of the artist community in New York City must obey regardless of gender.Through all of these struggles, Clara handles disappointment, worry and the ups and downs of her life as an artists with grace.

This book is a story of dichotomies. The bustle of New York City versus the tranquility of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The beauty of Fifth Avenue versus the squalor of the districts where immigrants crowd too many to a rented room. Clarity versus mental health issues. Being able-bodied versus living with a disability. Clara's own simple living quarters versus Mr. Tiffany's house in New York City and his estate outside the city. Clara is one of the only characters who passes back and forth between each of these worlds and its counterpart, and does it comfortably. 

Vreeland tells a beautiful story, and what's more wonderful is, since it's historical fiction, it's all based on truth. Though I know nothing about glass making, I found Vreeland's rich descriptions of the processes of how Clara's department and others at the company make beautiful works of art from glass to be fascinating. In fact, writing beautiful descriptions that paint pictures with her words is, besides having a good story to write, one of the most enjoyable things about Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I thought this book was a beautiful, well-written story. I found myself admiring Clara and feeling thankful that women like her came before women like me, making my life easier to live.

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