Local prof’s mystery mines art, gender and geology in Provence
by Suzi Steffen
CÉZANNE’S QUARRY, fiction by Barbara Corrado Pope. Pegasus Books, 2008. Hardcover, $25.
When you live in Oregon, friends think you’ve hit the jackpot, thanks to our mountains with scenic rivers, fertile valleys, cute university towns and what those from other states might think of as the “beach.” But our eight or nine months of rain, clearcut forest, sneaker waves and ocean dead zones, not to mention our meth labs and tax-cut fanatics, make for a more shadowy picture.
Like the darkness within and below our pretty picture, the Provence region of France — an area fabled for visitors and transplants from Vincent Van Gogh to Peter Mayle to Angelina Jolie — serves as a dark backdrop for a new mystery set in the late 19th century. Cézanne’s Quarry serves up a mix of art, intellectual and feminist history with a grounding in the atmosphere of rural France as the country begins to deal with the implications of modern science. The first novel by Barbara Corrado Pope, founding director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at the UO, Cézanne’s Quarry combines a traditional mystery plot with an assured, deep knowledge of the place and the time.
That time serves as the canvas for Pope’s true subjects, which range from the status of women (mostly rather dismal, it seems, especially with statistics on the rape of girl children) to the ways those without money could be caught out as they negotiated a climb to the middle or upper classes — not to mention a fascinating glimpse into the French legal system, the kinds of food that a restaurateur from Arles might serve customers in Aix-en-Provence, a clash between different ways of viewing evolution (and God), Paul Cézanne’s slog of an artistic and personal life and the not-so-savory history of the powerful DuPont family.
Perhaps that all sounds too heavy for summer reading. But the actual book, a mystery featuring Martin, a young magistrate from the north who was sent to Aix; Solange Vernet, a liberated woman whose murder sparks a series of events; Westerbury, an Englishman who believes he can help bring enlightenment to the repressed and religious women of rural France; and Cézanne, the post-Impressionist painter obsessed with Provence’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, provides plenty of enjoyment, anxiety, surprise and character development along with immersion in the atmosphere of a hot summer in Aix.
I wanted to hear more from Solange Vernet, mostly because she tried to escape the strictures that, especially in rural areas of France, confined women’s lives. But the societal rules didn’t affect women only in the provinces: From Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who famously said, “I paint with my prick,” to Eduard Manet, who died of syphilis, to Paul Gauguin and his virgin/whore issues surrounding women and class, French male Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters lived in a world where women were either “angels in the house” or prostitutes — but never equals. Men like Manet would be expected to patronize some of the numerous government-regulated prostitutes or other “working women” because respectable middle-class and upper-class women were often confined to their houses and kept out of the public sphere.
Pope, a historian who has written extensively on women, religion and gender, knows that French women who entered that public sphere in any way — through business ownership, with intellectual ambitions or even as restaurant servers — were met with withering verbal attacks on their virtue, sexual orientation and mothering ability, not to mention actual physical and sexual attacks.
But does the author construct a space in which Cézanne reacted this way to the murdered woman, who kept an unmarried lover, had some mysterious source of money and provided space for intellectual salons where women were invited to learn about religion and science? Or was it Solange’s lover, jealous of Cézanne, who killed her? And where in Aix are her missing gloves?
Though the identity of the murderer may be apparent to experienced mystery readers, Pope uses her complex characters to provide more than enough twists and turns, through a police procedural framework, to flesh out motives and create a sense of ferment layered beneath the placid surface of a late summer in the late 19th century in southern France.
Barbara Corrado Pope reads from Cézanne’s Quarry at 3 pm Saturday, July 12, in the UO’s Knight Library Browsing Room.