The novel, or more properly novella, is divided in five parts, each taking its impetus from a painting in which Lydia appears as a central figure. The first is woman reading the paper and takes place in 1878. The next two skip ahead to 1880 and then to 1881. Color prints of each of the paintings are included in the text which make abundantly clear the delicate touch of the artist's brush. Rather than a continuous plot, Chessman presents a series of vignettes focused on the artist and her model in which there are at most subtle suggestions of plot.
Lydia, the older sister of the famed ex-patriot American Impressionist and painter of mothers and children, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) who is the narrator and central figure in the story is in ‘delicate' health, so delicate in fact that even the walk to her sister's studio, never mind the five flights of stairs they must negotiate from their Paris flat may well be too much for her.
Suggestions about a possible sexual relationship between her sister and Degas begin as delicate hints about unnamed lovers and are complimented by suggestions of her own attraction to the sharp tongued painter of dancers and ‘loose' women as well as some great love of her youth who died in battle. If there are any doubts about the heterosexuality of these women who chose to live their lives as single women, Chessman delicately scotches them.
This report prepared by Jack Goodstein