Book Review: Christina Baker Kline's "A Piece of the World"
In A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline’s most recent novel, a childhood fascination serves as inspiration to unveil the story of an unlikely friendship between the famed American artist Andrew Wyeth and Anna Christina Olson, a woman living in near isolation in the harsh, rural landscape of Maine. She is also the subject of Wyeth’s most well-known painting: Christina’s World.
Kline rose to fame with her bestselling book Orphan Train. She grew up in Bangor, Maine, and spent her childhood exploring the state: hiking in Acadia National Park, walking along the rocky shoreline, and visiting cultural and historic sites. One of these was the Olson house where Wyeth painted, and she became enamored with the artist’s work. Researching this book she read biographies, art histories and spoke with experts to nail down a timeline of Christina’s life and discover the truth behind her reclusive demeanor.
The book follows the life of Christina Olson, an unexpected muse for the artist. She was raised poor in rural Maine by a Swedish father and American mother. Her story is tragic -- born with a disability that impaired her walking she found solace in school until her family forced her to drop out as a teenager to help on the family farm. As a young woman she fell in love with a man who summered in Maine; their relationship lasted four years, but ultimately he left her and married another woman.
Wyeth entered Christina’s life when he married her family friend, and shortly after became engrossed by her life and family home. During the summers he made the Olson home his studio, and painted multiple portraits of Christina and her brother, Alvaro. The book is inspired by the painting Christina’s World, located in the Museum of Modern Art, and is one of the most revered works of 20th Century American art.
The book attempts to turn the quiet power of the image into a biography. The painting depicts Christina in a pink dress from behind while she lays on the grass at the bottom of the hill; her body is pointed towards the white house sitting at the horizon point. Her dark hair is disheveled, and upon closer inspection we see her thin, frail arms are twisted and her legs lay limply beneath her. Her body guides the viewer’s eyes towards the house, providing movement and creating a sense of anxiety and desperation. This is a fragile woman who is out in the open, cannot move, and desperately wants the safety home provides.
Wyeth was inspired when he saw Christina crawling towards the house one day, and enlisted his wife to sit as a model in Christina’s place. In the novel, the author describes Christina’s life as one of this struggle -- a stubborn woman who wanted a life outside her farm, but also craved the security it gave her. A woman who refused help, but ultimately was reliant on others due to her progressive disease. Wyeth doesn’t feature heavily in the narrative; Kline instead focuses on the difficulties of living a rural life without modern conveniences like electricity. Her story is one of the complex relationship of striving for something beyond what you know, and the realities of family life and obligations. We are left with a portrait of a woman that mirrors the landscape itself: harsh and unforgiving yet striking and resilient.
Further reading: https://downeast.com/christina-and-me-christinas-world/