The Flower to the Painter is Gary Inbinder’s second novel. It tells the story of Marcia Brownlow, a young American woman whose career as a governess in Italy in the late 1870s has been summarily halted by a lascivious employer and his jealous wife. First she throws herself on the mercy of her old school friend, Daisy, and Daisy’s aunt. Then, through the stratagems of the aunt, she finds herself agreeing to impersonate a man in order to become an assistant to an expatriate American author, Arthur Wolcott.
Marcia becomes Mark, and, when Wolcott discovers her talent for art, her prospects begin to look brighter. We are led on a tour of the art world of the late nineteenth century, through Italy, Paris, England and America as Wolcott takes his protégée to meet artists and wealthy patrons of the arts and as Marcia battles to keep her sex – and her sexuality – a secret.
This is a fun novel to read if you enjoy armchair travel. It is fascinating to be led around some of the great cities of Europe, especially in this period, as these cities balance on the threshold of great change. Inbinder has obviously researched his subject matter thoroughly, and has spent some time imagining what it would be like to live in this epoch – with good results.
The tour through the art world, and Mark Brownlow’s progress from being an unknown American to becoming the up-and-coming new thing, is equally interesting. It is exciting to run into familiar names, like Renoir, or Whistler, or Sargent, and to see them given character on the page, while some of the references to artworks had me scrambling to Google Images to discover which thing of beauty was the topic of conversation for Marcia and her contemporaries.
The tone of the novel, narrated by Marcia, is quite convincing. I liked the realistic, slightly conniving heroine, and I liked the way the novel dealt with the multiple ways she was unable to express herself, as a woman and a lesbian in a man’s world. However, I was a little disappointed that she seemed to become more uniformly kind and more honourable as she played the role of the man, and that one of her most interesting qualities – her practical acceptance of the need of a penniless woman to scheme her way through a world skewed against her – seems to disappear.
I also felt that the novel lacked a strong story arc. Instead, Marcia and Arthur make their way through Europe, from city to city, while a string of fascinating and beautiful women awake Marcia’s hopeless love. I was interested in the journey, but the novel did not seem to take full advantage of the possibilities of Marcia’s deception. I felt she did not come up against enough problems, and when she did, they were resolved too quickly.
Having said that, The Flower to the Painter is still an enjoyable read – its tone delightful, its subject matter intriguing – and it should not disappoint the reader.
Alison Stedman is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2011, Alison Stedman