Vreeland takes the big bold brush strokes of Renoir's personal and artistic oeuvre and displays them with her usual vividness in this eponymous novel.... Sensual and provocative.
Exquisitely wrought.... This summer's most satisfying historical novel.
Imagining the banks of the Seine in the thick of la vie moderne, Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) tracks Auguste Renoir as he conceives, plans and paints the 1880 masterpiece that gives her vivid fourth novel its title. Renoir, then 39, pays the rent on his Montmartre garret by painting "overbred society women in their fussy parlors," but, goaded by negative criticism from Emile Zola, he dreams of doing a breakout work. On July 20, the daughter of a resort innkeeper close to Paris suggests that Auguste paint from the restaurant's terrace. The party of 13 subjects Renoir puts together (with difficulty) eventually spends several Sundays drinking and flirting under the spell of the painter's brush. Renoir, who declares, "I only want to paint women I love," falls desperately for his newest models, while trying to win his last subject back from her rich fiance. But Auguste and his friends only have two months to catch the light he wants and fend off charges that he and his fellow Impressionists see the world "through rose-colored glasses." Vreeland achieves a detailed and surprising group portrait, individualized and immediate.
Here, Vreeland uses words to paint the changing world of late 19th-century France. After being stung by remarks in an essay written by French novelist Émile Zola concerning the inadequacies of Impressionism, Pierre-Auguste Renoir is goaded to paint a masterpiece surpassing his Montmartre spectacle Bal au Moulin de la Galette, which will finally establish this school as heir to the artistic traditions of France and Italy. He uses models, allowing the listener to experience la vie moderne, the new modes of living, thinking, and expressing that transformed the social world of the late 19th century into the one we inhabit today. Alphonsine, daughter of the proprietor of La Maison Fournaise, and Angèle, a debauched child of Montmartre, are naturals. The beautiful yet spoiled Circe, fobbed off on Renoir by a jaded Parisian socialite, provokes a crisis when she quits midstream, refusing to be painted in profile. Renoir finds her replacement in Aline, a 19-year-old seamstress he will one day marry. Other models add their own piquancy. Karen White brings a cadenced elegance to her reading that is set off by her irreverent over-the-top voicing of the snobby Circe and the naïve innocence of Aline. Recommended for libraries with a commitment to historical fiction and books about art.
David Fauacheux - Library Journal
Critics agree that the concept (tracing Renoir's steps back from this joyous painting) and the research (combining facts not only about Renoir's inner circle but also details about French café society, culture, and painting techniques) demonstrate considerable skill and dedication.... Despite this perhaps overabundance of historical material, Luncheon succeeds as a portrait of both a man and an era.
(Starred review.) Once again—to the delight of her legion of fans—the best-selling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999) and The Passion of Artemesia (2002) imaginatively uses art history as the basis for a carefully constructed historical novel.... [R]iveting, complex novel. —Brad Hooper
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