It's been a long while since I've felt this conflicted about a book. Let's just say that about halfway thru it I was so irritated that I nearly quit right then, but the last 50-or-so pages grabbed me so hard that I was completely riveted.
First off - this is the middle volume of an apparent trilogy (which is NOT noted anywhere on the cover/title page), beginning with The Vanished Child
and culminating with A Citizen of the Country
. That said, I was able to enjoy The Knowledge of Water
completely without having read the first (or, unless I happen to run across a copy, planning to read the third.)The Knowledge of Water
is set in 1910 Paris, amid the expressive explosion of the day that challenged commonly-held ideas about what constitutes "art", while conventional restrictions on behavior still dominated the lives of most average citizens.
The main characters are Perdita Halley, a young, virtually blind American woman studying piano and dreaming of a career as a concert performer, and Alexander von Reisden, owner of a psychiatric hospital, who has a mysterious background. Having met in Boston (events covered in the The Vanished Child
), Perdita has made the shocking choice to travel unchaperoned with Alexander to the continent, in order to study at the famed Conservatoire de Paris. Perdita loves Alexander, but has seen demonstrated all too clearly that the demands of marriage and family are impossible, in the standards of that age, to reconcile with the life of a touring performer, or even the continued development of one's skills. Alexander's needs are likewise in conflict - although he loves Perdita and would never want to deny her the music she pursues so passionately, he wants a conventional home life, with a wife and children waiting for him when he comes home at night.
Into this apparently superficial romance are drawn characters who embody the changing times: the Vicomtesse de Gresniere, known as "Dotty" to her cousin Alexander, who sees Perdita as a completely unsuitable match; Millie Xico, Perdita's bohemian writer and journalist friend, who has been robbed of the publishing rights to her own work by her estranged husband; Madame Mallais, one-time laundress and widow of a famed Impressionist painter, and her grandson Jean-Jacques, who spends his days at the Louvre making copies of the Mona Lisa to sell to tourists; Daugherty, who has been sent to Paris by Perdita's guardian to look into the nature of her relationship with Reisden; and various art dealers, artists, poets, and other less-than-reputable members of Parisian society.
Throughout there is the mystery of who killed the homeless woman known only as the Mona Lisa, and why her murderer insists that Alexander help him give her a proper burial; questions of the legitimacy of several pieces of art, including one owned by Dotty and scheduled to be displayed in public for the first time at the Winter Salon; and on-going musings on the rights of women to be recognized as equals with men in their artistic endeavors. Add to that the endless rains that gradually saturate the ground and fill Paris's notorious sewers, culminating in a record-breaking flood that reduces all classes to refugees. It's a fascinating history lesson, although sometimes the extended navel-gazing made it a bit hard to swallow.