The book essentially tells the story of events leading up to the painting of “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. I have always loved the painting and have a print of it in my home. It conjures up thoughts of hope as well as desperation, of longing and success, of family and serenity, of disappointment and expectation, as the young woman in the painting lies on the slope of a field, looking into the space between herself and a home in the distance, which seems peaceful but possibly unreachable.
The novel is written from Christina’s point of view. It is presented with an honesty and clarity that feels authentic as she tells the story of her struggles. In spite of her difficulties, she refuses to be pitied. The book covers five decades, from the birth of Christina Olson to the painting of her by Andrew Wyeth, the husband of her close friend Betsy. He is a frequent visitor to her farmhouse, a farmhouse whose location inspired him and was the place where he painted views and scenes he saw and imagined in the surrounding area. He also painted portraits of Christina’s brother Alvaro, who lived with her, surrendering his own life in support of hers.
The author has done an extraordinary amount of research into Christina’s background and Wyeth’s relationship with her and her family home. She succeeds in bringing both of them to life. Christina is imagined as a sometimes martyr, sometimes distraught and sometimes surly young woman, a woman who is always independent and perhaps single-minded, in spite of her affliction. Yet her need to be independent was fraught with obstacles. Her condition made it hard for her to manage everything on her own, in spite of the fact that she tried hard to ignore her shortcomings for much of her life. This was much to the consternation of others, and it caused her great suffering and loss. Often displaying irascible stubbornness alongside with kindness toward her family, she seemed to be witnessing life around her without participating in it. Protective of her private feelings, she shared little with others. Her experience with young love went unrequited and caused her great distress, altering her attitude about life permanently and consigning her to a rather reclusive future existence. The sacrifices demanded of the Olson family often seemed necessary, but nevertheless, cruel and selfish.
The book, written with tenderness and compassion by the author, as it developed the life and personality of Christina, was made even better by the narrator, Polly Stone, who truly enhanced this novel by making the characters reach out from the page into the reader’s heart. The narrator became Christina as she related her story, without overpowering her. She told the story of her life, the story of her happiness and her sadness, her loves and her losses, her loneliness and her suffering at the hands of an illness that severely compromised her ability to become a member of society as most of her friends did, as a wife and a mother. Her life was one of servitude to others, in spite of her illness, a life which sometimes made her bitter and a life which eventually strangled the life of her brother Alvaro when she was unwilling to let him lead a life of his own, considering his need for independence nothing more than an abandonment of her. Those who did not escape the farm did not truly live their life, but Christina loved the farm with the same fierceness as her mother did.
Since the timeline shifted from her youth to her current day, I often got a bit confused, but quickly sorted it out. Andrew Wyeth wanted to know just who Christina Olson was, and so did I. In 1948, when Wyeth painted the famous painting, “Christina’s World”, she was 55 years old, but he painted her the way he perceived her after seeing her crawl across a field. The image he painted of her is of a much younger woman, a woman who still might have hope in her heart, even as she yearned to reach the farmhouse in the distance.