Painted Lives
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About Charlotte Vale-Allen

Charlotte Vale-Allen On Writing

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   Somebody's Baby
   Claudia's Shadow
   Dreaming in Color
   Grace Notes
   Leftover Dreams
   Mood Indigo
   Running Away
   Painted Lives
    Parting Gifts

Daddy's Girl

Island Nation Press

Katharine Marlowe

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"Allen's story of artist's life is filled with memorable characters"

by Donald Frisch, from Grand Rapids Press, Michigan, Oct. 14, 1990

You'll want to own this book. The protagonist, Mattie Sylvester, is that kind of indomitable character you've loved since childhood; sort of like Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline, but with the wit and wisdom age can provide.

Charlotte Vale-Allen introduces us to Mattie when she is already an old woman, recent widow of one of America's most famous and respected painters. She spends all her time simply gazing out to sea from her island home, seemingly an object of pity whose direction and identity has been lost with the death of her husband.

But aged Mattie has lost none of her mental adroitness, and little of her physical faculties. She looks to the sea to ponder her past and determine her new course.

This past is revealed episodically as Mattie recalls it at the prompting of her newly-hired secretary, Sarah. Sarah is an unmarried woman, still attractive at 41, who inexplicably takes a position that isolates her on an island where company is limited to an old woman and the household staff that consists of three people who also made the same choice.

Mattie is the rock of the household, providing the emotional stability this assembled cast of characters needs for their survival. Mattie has had the strength to survive, and that strength is rooted in her absolute confidence in her talent and her devotion to that talent. Mattie was the artist in her household, not her charming rake of a husband, Gideon Sylvester.

As Mattie recounts her life to Sarah, we discover Mattie as a young girl who has the rare ability to change a blank canvas into a window that reveals a portion of reality. She moves in a circle of other creative artists who accept her and love her because of the honesty of her effort to nurture and hone that ability.

Allen obviously knows much about the life of the artists who explored the frontiers of their discipline, and her treatment of Mattie's group transports you back to the Greenwich Village of the 1920s and '30s, a magical time and place of artistic ferment. It would be nice to hear more of this scene from Allen.

As is true of close-knit groups, there are always people on the periphery, not as talented or developed as the core, but tolerated by the group for one quality or another. One such cast member is Gideon Sylvester, a master of technique but a painter with little vision, who manages to spear the young and vulnerable Mattie, remove her from her friends, and initiate the isolation that becomes her fate.

Gideon, step by step, robs the trapped Mattie of everything dear to her. It is a weakness of the book that one as intelligent as Mattie is so easily and thoroughly deceived, but it is not totally implausible. She survives the depredations with character intact, and with the ability to salvage the life of Sarah, whose own story of survival is exchanged with Mattie's during the nights the two women talk.

Painted Lives is, in short, a nicely-constructed tale with memorable characters. It is not a perfect book; there's an unrealistic happy ending with mandates an equally unrealistic change in one of the characters, and that hurts the book a little. But it is not a fatal flaw.

You'll not be disappointed, and you'll even enjoy rereading this book, Allen's 26th. She's in full stride now, and you'll want to watch for her next one as well. ***

Don Frisch is a former professor and former owner of Downtown Books.

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"Novel canvasses the life, mind of woman artist"

June Cameron, Pittsburgh Press, May 6, 1990

For a long time writer, Charlotte Vale-Allen, who has published 26 novels and one non-fiction book, has believed that artists see things differently, that their vision is more heightened than that of others.

It's around this intriguing idea Allen builds her latest novel Painted Lives. Within the book's pages she explores the life and mind of a woman artist.

The result is a story that captures and holds the reader's attention with a plot that dips and swirls with unexpected twists. Her characters are both provocative and warmhearted. A liberal sprinkling of mystery peppers the story line, keeping the reader guessing to the last chapter.

Artist Mattie Sylvester, 77-year-old widow of the world famous artist Gideon Sylvester, is the book's central character. Everything about this woman is on a grand scale: her height, her eyes, her vocal range, her emotions. Mattie is feisty, strong-minded, willful, quick-witted, curt of speech.

Living in a rambling house on an island off the Atlantic Coast, Mattie spends hours each day gazing out to sea. She recalls the years gone by and, as she remembers certain events and some of the people from her past, a terrible rage wells up within her. Only a brisk walk of giant strides up the sandy beach quiets her.

What prompts this terrible rage?

She is a very wealthy woman, her wealth acquired from her husband's paintings, which have been sold all over the world. Never will she or her two sons have money worries.

In spite of her fiery disposition, her blunt remarks and her candid observations, Mattie's home is staffed with household servants who love her.

This is no ordinary house populated with ordinary people: There's Bonnie, the cook, who's been with Mattie for 27 years; Carl, her driver and handyman, who's served Mattie for 22 years; and Gloria, her housekeeper, who's watched over Mattie's home for 11 years. Their loyalty and admiration for this eccentric elderly woman show every day.

Why? And what was in their past lives which brought them to Mattie's home?

When the story actually begins, Mattie has just hired a new person for her staff, a secretary, one Sara Kidd, young, deceptively plain, and modest. Her job will be to write Mattie's letters, take phone calls and share meals with this legendary artist.

As the days go by, slowly a bond of trust is established between this young woman, who has had such an unhappy youth she now lacks confidence in herself, and Mattie, who is struggling to find peace and escape from bitter past memories.

Sara is sometimes shocked at Mattie's candid descriptions of people and situations, sometimes shaken with laughter at Mattie's witty observations and many times puzzled by her stated hatred of her late husband and his deeds. To the world Gideon Sylvester was a sensitive, gifted painter. Why not to Mattie?

Mattie's terse, colorful explanation of why old people died went like this:

"There is a damned good reason why old people died: to spare youngsters the sight of them. Who the hell wanted to know at twenty that they'd one day look like a quirky assemblage of shapeless rubbery parts tacked any which way to a set of crumbling bones?"

And Mattie's scornful opinion of men: " ... Men are just like little boys with money."

The closer Sara comes to know and understand this woman, the more Sara recognizes the great talent Mattie possesses. She constantly asks herself this question: How did this woman, for whom everyone had prophesied greatness, end up being famous solely for having been Gideon Sylvester's wife?

Gradually Mattie takes Sara into her confidence and through a series of flashbacks recounts her youth, her romances and her marriage to Gideon. There are unusual twists to Mattie's story and always surprises in the narrative. Slowly Sara-and the reader-comes to understand the answers to the puzzling questions posed throughout the story.

The answers prove that Mattie does see things and people differently than the average person. Painted Lives is an engrossing story, one the reader will long remember.

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