I've never read A.S. Byatt's national bestseller "Possession" because, to me, it looked like a "chick's" book: the art deco, pseudo-Victorian couple on the book's cover reminded me of a romance novel, and I despise romance novels.
However, Byatt's new book - already a bestseller in England and Canada - offers a triptych of short novellas, each linked to at least one painting by the great modern master of color and form. Thus the title: "The Matisse Stories."Although I detest romance novels, I adore Matisse. Visiting the Matisse retrospective in New York in October 1993 was one of the highlights of my life. The master's use of form and color left me breathless on more than one occasion. Byatt agrees: "Matisse had such a sense of the perfect shape that a work ought to be."
In the first story, "Medusa's Ankles," a sensible married woman, a university lecturer, spots a copy of Matisse's "Rosy Nude" in a hairdresser's window. Intrigued, she enters the salon and winds up having a makeover by the owner.
When the hairdresser's magic one day goes awry, the story takes the reader in a predictable direction, but one filled with irony, pathos and humor.
"Art Work," the second story, is longer and more ornate. The Matisse painting "Le Silence habite des maisons" ("The Silence That Lives in Houses") is used to introduce the Dennison family.
Robin, the husband, is an artist, albeit an unsuccessful one. His wife Debbie works for a woman's magazine, having given up art to support her husband. (When the couple first met in college as art students they discovered their mutual love of Matisse.)
The cleaning lady, a Mrs. Brown - who dresses in the most outrageous, gaudy fashions - is continually rearranging Robin's still lifes, infuriating him. Debbie serves as a buffer between them because she does't want Mrs. Brown to leave, but her husband lectures the cleaning lady on art and its importance as a sort of punishment.
There are further complications when it is revealed that there is more to Mrs. Brown than meets the eye.
The final tale, "The Chinese Lobster," takes place in a Chinese restaurant. Dr. Himmelblau, dean of women at a London university, and Professor Diss, a tall, well-groomed gentleman-scholar and artist, discuss, over lunch, the accusations of misconduct leveled against the professor by a hysterical, rage-filled woman student, who has also formed a virulent hatred for the "sexist" paintings of Matisse.
Himmelblau and Diss love everything about Matisse and discuss the girl in terms of her anorexia and suicidal tendencies.
In the book's jacket we read: ". . . adually the veneer of ordinariness is peeled back to expose pain, reveal desire or express the intensity of joy in color and creation."
"The Matisse Stories" are, as Byatt suggests, "precise, nice objects."