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Originally published Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 3:04 AM

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Naslund’s new novel: a writer and painter balance life and art

Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel “The Fountain of St. James Court” follows the lives of two women, one a contemporary writer, one a French artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman”

by Sena Jeter Naslund

William Morrow, 434 pp., $26.99

From Cape Cod to Versailles, author Sena Jeter Naslund situates her fiction in times and places with which we already have some familiarity, then patiently teases out new dimensions to the stories we thought we knew.

“Ahab’s Wife” was built on a character given only brief mention in Melville’s “Moby- Dick.” “Four Spirits” considered lives on the periphery of the 1963 bombing that killed four girls at a church in Birmingham, Ala. And “Abundance” offered a sympathetic and intimately imagined portrait of Marie Antoinette.

And now comes “The Fountain of St. James Court: or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.”

In this bifurcated novel, Naslund continues her dialogue with the past and its residents — giving a nod, obviously, to James Joyce in both title and text, and also returning to a real-life historical figure, artist Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, whom she had employed as a secondary character in her novel “Abundance.”

The contemporary strand of this book deals with Kathryn Callaghan, a writer who is looking back on her nine books and three marriages as she nears the age of 70.

This reflection has been accentuated by the topic of her latest manuscript, in which she adopts the perspective of Elisabeth, an exceptionally talented painter whose work spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries as she moved from childhood into maturity, through professional success, political turmoil and personal loss and into old age.

Elisabeth’s portraits of Marie Antoinette put her own life in jeopardy during the French Revolution, but she fled Paris and went about Europe, making her living by painting nobility. Throughout her life’s journey, the artist mused on friendship, romantic love, motherhood, art, morals and breadwinning — and how to strike a balance among those competing demands.

Even 200 years ago, Elisabeth asserted her right to think for herself: “Not for a moment would I betray the standards inculcated in me by my mother (never mind the loose behavior of our husbands), but…. [t]his is the art of living: to feel what I feel; to be in no way repressed, mentally or emotionally; and to find the means both artistically and personally to let out the light that is within me.”

As Kathryn finishes this book on Vigée-Le Brun’s life, she ponders those issues in her own trajectory: her college days, her marriages and divorces, her relationship with her beloved gay son and her important friendships.

Both stories are clear affirmations of women as artists and impassioned validations of women of advancing age. They also, both directly and indirectly, challenge the idea that marriage is a relevant or beneficial institution for women.

Tradition is honored in other ways. As a character, Kathryn lives in the same historic part of Louisville that Naslund actually lives in, and this book clearly celebrates a community that the author has found to be both gracious and stimulating.

“The Fountain of St. James Court” is a difficult book to get into — it is moody, dense, fussy with exacting detail. But it also has “its charms and congruences” — give it a hundred pages or so and it becomes unexpectedly addictive.

Naslund once again creates memorable characters, surprising scenarios and astute notions on living life with intention.

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