Some works of art are so iconic that the viewer can’t help but wonder about the backstory. Take, for example, “Christina’s World,” painted by Andrew Wyeth in 1948 and inspired by a woman named Christina Olson. The painting shows a young woman with her back to the viewer, lying in a vast field and looking up at a weather-beaten house and its smaller outbuildings. Though we can’t see her face, we get the impression that she’s yearning for something.
Christina Baker Kline’s superb new novel chronicles the constricted life of the woman Wyeth made famous. The Christina in Kline’s book used to yearn for things, but poverty and disability made her aware early on that some of the pleasures of life were not to be hers. We first meet her as a young child, on her sickbed. Yet, despite her challenges, the young Christina is smart, stubborn, resourceful and even physically brave. But bad luck, bad timing, other people’s bad decisions or bad faith shrink her life down to the old house and the plot of land it stands on. Alone in the house with her younger brother, her life is year after year of drudgery. Then Wyeth shows up and takes one of her upstairs rooms as a studio.
In case you’re wondering, no, Wyeth and Christina don’t fall in love and run away together. Wyeth’s most famous painting is deceptive; the real Christina was old enough to be his mother. What is forged between them is a tender connection and understanding.
The beauty of Kline’s writing and her grasp of her characters is such that at first you want to sink into this book like a warm bath. But she doesn’t allow her reader to get too comfortable. Christina is not a woman who accepts her disappointments with saintly forbearance. She is bitter, disappointed and occasionally spiteful. But the good-natured and talented young painter does not pity her—he sees her humanity.
Gentle and profound, A Piece of the World shows the healing power of simple, unexpected friendship.