A Piece of the World: A Novel
“Andrew Wyeth’s vision of her in the painting returns to Christina her sense of self, for she knows that through this painting she will be truly seen.”
Several years ago, author, Christina Baker Kline’s, recent book, Orphan Train, was a runaway bestseller, generally well-reviewed. Kline’s latest novel, A Piece of the World, is based on an interesting premise: exploring the life and times of the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World. As Kline herself explains, “I liked the idea of taking a real historical moment of some significance and, filling in the details, illuminating stories, that have been unnoticed or obscured.”
Kline, after Orphan Train was published, when visiting New York, saw in the Museum of Modern Art Wyeth’s painting of her namesake, Christina, and was hooked. She knew she had to bring to life the woman in the painting.
In the novel, 46-year-old Christina Olson, when she meets Wyeth, is crippled by a childhood onset, but steadily progressive, neuromuscular disease that was never attended to. Now she can no longer walk, but refusing a wheelchair shuffles and then crawls around the old family farmhouse that belongs to her and her brother Al, situated near Rockland, Maine.
The major part of the book weaves back and forth from the present to the Olson family’s distant past, and is sketchily if skillfully written, to present us with this protagonist, a brilliant, frustrated spinster who puts family above her individual self. She gives up on her dream of becoming a schoolteacher, of becoming a wife and mother, and lives to be of service to her aging parents and siblings. The historic farmhouse is neglected and weather beaten outside but warm and preserved inside. As she grows older Christina becomes more crabby and reclusive.
If there is a blemish in this novel it may be the over-emphasis of descriptions of farm and Maine rural life that slows the narrative. As Kline further explains, she “loves blending fiction and non-fiction.” This may be at the core of why readers expecting the same reading experience from A Piece of the World as they read Orphan Train may be disappointed.
The highlights of the novel are the imagined scenes between the energetic, artistic 22-year-old Wyeth and the older Christina Olson. Readers may wish Kline had fleshed out these encounters to balance the blander narrative of Christina’s past. They meet when Wyeth courts and then marries, Betsy James, Christina’s much younger friend. The young couple lives in Pennsylvania but summers with Betsy’s family in Maine.
Wyeth and Christina strike up an unlikely friendship initially based on Wyeth’s own physical disability that allows Christina to open gradually to him, as she believes he understands her stubbornness and discomfort. “Out of the kitchen window I see Andy trudging up the field toward the house, hitching one leg forward, dragging the other, his gait uneven. Strange that I didn’t notice that before. Here he is at the door in paint-flecked boots, a white cotton shirt rolled to the elbows, a sketch pad under his arm.”
Soon Wyeth is a constant figure at the farm, sketching the fields and barns and using an upstairs room in the house for a studio. Gradually, summer by summer, as they grow more accustomed to his presence, Wyeth asks first Al and then Christina to sit for him, but neither painting turns out satisfactorily to the Olson brother and sister.
Ultimately, Wyeth persuades Christina to sit for him again, this time in the grass that surrounds the house, and reluctantly she agrees. This painting becomes the famous Christina’s World: fields, a barn, the house, and a woman in pink, face turned to the house.
Wyeth and Betsy host a dinner for Christina and Al and unveil the painting. Christina (the narrative voice through the novel) narrates, “I shift in my seat, craning my neck to see what he’s looking at, it’s the painting, a large painting, and it fills almost the entire wall above my head. A girl in a yellow field wearing a light pink dress with a thin black belt. Her dark hair blows in the wind. Her face is hidden. She’s leaning toward a shadowy silver house and barn balanced on the horizon line, beneath a pale ribbon of sky… The girl is low to the ground but almost appears to float in space. She is larger than everything around her. Like a centaur, or a mermaid, she is part of one thing and part of another: my dress, my hair, my frail arms, but the years on my body have been erased. The girl in the painting is lithe and young.”
Wyeth asks for her response, and Cristina, overwhelmed and then dumbfounded when he tells her the title, Christina’s World, cannot speak: “He laughs, ‘A vast planet of grass. And you exactly in the middle.’”
Andrew Wyeth’s vision of her in the painting returns to Christina her sense of self, for she knows that through this painting she will be truly seen.