________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 10 . . . . November 11, 2016


The Art of Rebellion.

Brenda Joyce Leahy.
Winnipeg, MB: Rebelight, 2016.
238 pp., trade pbk. & ebook, $15.99 (pbk.), $9.99 (ebook).
ISBN 978-0-9948399-8-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-9948399-9-2 (ebook).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4



"You must have a passion that you'd risk everything to pursue," I said.

Philippe shrugged. "I've never thought about it. I have my work, which I enjoy, but that's not the same thing, is it?… Does art mean so very much to you? Enough to give up everything else - a marriage, children, a home?"

I thought carefully before answering. "I don't want to reject all that, but how can I do both? I believe that art is what I have to give. It's what I'll leave behind. My footprints, if you will." I gestured at the Veronese canvas. "Even one painting such as this in a lifetime would be worth the sacrifice, don't you think?"

As we both gazed at the painting, I hoped he could appreciate the vision, the skill and the passion of such an artist.

"Is it fame and fortune you are seeking?"

"No, although the regard of other artists is important. What I really want, no - what I need - is to create what's in here," I pointed to my head, "and here." I touched my chest. "It's hard to explain. I only know it's what I must do."

"I hope what you seek is what you really want," he said softly, placing his hands on my shoulders. "You are the most frustrating yet intriguing woman I have ever met."

Brenda Joyce Leahy has written a treat of a book, one which will appeal not only to young women in their teens, but also to older readers who like historical novels.

      As the novel opens, 15-year-old Gabrielle de Villiers, the youngest daughter of a Laval merchant, and an aspiring artist, is travelling unescorted on a train to Paris. The year is 1900, and she is running away from home to escape marriage. A 45-year-old nobleman, the Baron d' Argente, wants to marry one of the three de Villiers daughters, and Gabrielle's parents welcome a match because the baron can introduce the family to "le gratin", the best of society. Genevieve, Gabrielle's older sister, is interested in the baron, but when he comes to dinner with the family, she fails to make a good impression, and his attention fixes upon Gabrielle. Not only is he thirty years her senior, but also he is domineering in nature, with no interest in art.

      This information is conveyed in flashbacks which blend well with the forward motion of the story. On the train, Gabrielle meets Philippe Lucien, a handsome man in his twenties, who is evasive about his profession but reveals his interest in miniature cameras; indeed, he has one hidden in his hat. Is he a spy? A police officer? His mysterious occupation is one of the factors that compels readers to read on. He and Gabrielle strike up an acquaintance, but their rapport dwindles when she tells him about her pursuit of art, and he says that it's "highly irregular for a woman to study art seriously." Arriving at the Gare Montparnasse, they disembark, and Gabrielle sets off across France without him; however, he turns up unexpectedly and continues to do so throughout the novel.

      Gabrielle intends to stay with her maternal grandmother in Paris, someone she hasn't seen in four years because of a rift in the family over her grandmother's commitment to the women's movement. Unfortunately, her grandmother has moved from her last known address; consequently, Gabrielle is on her own in a big, colourful, dangerous city. While keeping her mind on her goals, to find her grandmother and to study art, she experiences something of Paris. The lives of the poor in Montmartre intrigue and shock her. She is impressed by the Paris Exposition and by the salon of a wealthy patron of the arts. Almost overwhelmed by many new experiences in a short period of time, Gabrielle is unaware at first that she has fallen into bad company, but the reader knows and reads on to see whether Gabrielle will fall into prostitution and addiction or will somehow save herself. We read on, as well, to see if she finds a way to pursue her art in a male-dominated arts milieu.

      Leahy's novel succeeds on many levels. The reader feels like Gil in Midnight in Paris, travelling back in time; in this instance, to the fin de siecle. Leahy transports the reader back to this world through her unobtrusive, but painstaking, attention to detail. On the very first page, the mention of Gabrielle's parasol, petticoats and hat pin signal that readers are entering the past. The hat pin is not just authentic detail; it will come into play in a pivotal scene later on. Clearly, Leahy is a skilled writer in knowing how to make an element in the story serve several purposes.

      Caught up in the plot, readers may not be aware that they are learning much about Paris in 1900, including the arts world. In her quest for female role models, Gabrielle, and the readers, hear about such luminaries as Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot and Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun (whose major paintings were on exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada during the summer of 2016). In one entertaining scene, Gabrielle is in a bar with some Parisian artists, getting drunk and talking about the purpose of art. The other artists are introduced as "Pablo the Spaniard", "Alphonse", "Paul" and "Konstantin the Russian." Readers knowledgeable about the impressionist and post-impressionist movements will recognize Pablo Picasso, Alphonse Maureau, Paul Cezanne (Paul Gauguin was in Tahiti) and Konstantin Korovin.

      Canada comes into the plot. Gabrielle's brother Charles, who is in trouble with his parents over his gambling, is being sent to live and work with relatives in St. Boniface, MB. In the course of her Paris adventures, Gabrielle meets a Canadian art student, Julie, who has studied with William Brymner and Maurice Cullen of the Art Association of Montreal. Some of the surnames Leahy chose seem to have been selected because of their familiarity to Canadian ears, like "Charest" and "Chaudiere." The author's choice of names in general is a point of interest. Like Charles Dickens, she sometimes chooses a surname that shows the dominant trait of its possessor; for instance, the Baron d'Argente, who has plenty of "argent" (money). Advice books for fiction writers often advise against using similar names for characters in the same story, but in this case, "Genevieve" and "Gabrielle" are similar for a reason.

      The key theme of The Art of Rebellion is the right of girls and women to pursue a life's work in addition to a family life (or, in some cases, instead of.) Gabrielle's grandmother's involvement in the feminist movement of the era, and Gabrielle's experiences when caught up in demonstrations, will make readers of today acutely aware of the bias and abuse that women faced in trying to secure basic human and civil rights. A story about a teenager who puts romance on hold until she gains a foothold in her life's work is one which parents and educators should greet with applause.

      Cliff-hanger chapter endings create suspense and maintain reader interest. The novel ends with a dazzling surprise that shows Gabrielle's audacity and inventiveness. Only when we think about it do we realize that Leahy carefully foreshadowed the outcome throughout the novel. Like the Eiffel Tower, The Art of Rebellion is complex, well-wrought and wonderful - a tour de force.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta is an Ottawa, ON, writer whose books include two young adult novels set in the 1950s. A third historical novel is in the works. See http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

Next Review | Table of Contents for This Issue - November 11, 2016.

CM Home
| Back Issues | Search | CM Archive | Profiles Archive