The Forest Lover
The Forest Lover is a fictionalized biography of painter Emily Carr (1871-1945) that focuses on her life from around 1905 through 1930 (and which covers her two most productive periods). Born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Carr struggles against her restrictive, repressed, and very English upbringing to become a free-spirited eclectic and lover of both nature and indigenous art. She makes several trips to the remote areas of the BC coast to paint totem poles, which she realizes are quickly disappearing as they rot into the rainforest or are taken to museums.Susan Vreeland is an author who has fabulous ideas for books, but who fails to deliver. Being a serious fan of Vermeer, I was excited to read The Girl in Hyacinth Blue; however, I was very disappointed with the novel and had to force myself to finish it. My hopes weren’t as high then when I picked up The Passion of Artemisia, but I thought the combination of woman artist and 17th century Italy held promise. The reality was a fairly boring, mundane piece of historical fiction. When she came out with The Forest Lover, her third novel, the subject of Emily Carr and the setting of the West Coast intrigued me, despite being burned by Vreeland before. In the end, The Forest Lover isn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It’s very slow starting, and doesn’t really get going until past the 100 page mark when Carr travels to France to study oils and learn to paint in the Fauvist style. From that point it was an okay read with a few gripping moments and the occasional interesting character.What I liked: The settings (Victoria, the wilds of BC, Vancouver & France), and I appreciate that the publisher printed a map on the inside cover. The character of New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins was interesting, wise, and felt natural, although later I was disappointed to learn that there is no evidence the two women met. Also, I see from reviews that many readers weren’t familiar with Emily Carr and were happy for the introduction—so if this novel brings new viewer’s to Carr’s art, well, that’s a good thing.What I didn’t like: I studied Vreeland’s writing to try and figure out why I dislike it so intensely. On the sentence-by-sentence level, she’s perfectly competent and occasionally turns a pretty phrase. I think her biggest fault is in her storytelling. It’s almost never engaging. Her characters are often stereotypical (Indigenous = spiritual and pure, White people & missionaries = greedy, mean and unsympathetic) and her dialogue sounds unnatural and stilted. Overall, I find that she’s an uptight writer who plays it safe because that’s all she knows. There are a couple of sentences in the novel where a character challenges Carr on misappropriation of First Nations culture, and Carr dismisses them with just a few words—just as Vreeland dismisses any challenging aspects of Carr’s life, or for that matter, any depth, nuance, or complexity at all.Part way through I was so annoyed by the narrative voice that I pulled out the one book I have that Emily Carr wrote. As I expected, Carr’s own voice was very different—and she’s a much stronger, more interesting writer. I should have just read Carr herself, and forgotten about Vreeland.Recommended for: Vreeland fans and readers who like her homogeneous style of historical fiction. If you want to learn more about Emily Carr, she’s a far superior writer, so just go read one of her many books instead.