When the bestselling author of Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline, cast around for the subject of her next novel, inspiration struck in the form of a famous painting by the great American artist, Andrew Wyeth, hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The result is her latest book: a sublimely beautiful and deeply moving meditation on the human condition.
In a Piece of the World, Christina Olson suffers a debilitating degenerative disease that restricts her mobility. A descendant of the cursed Salem witch trials judge on her maternal side, and impoverished Swedish farm stock on her father’s, Christina lives in a once-grand farmstead on the coast of Maine. The main narrative features an aging Christina living with her brother Alvaro in the now crumbling house, the siblings’ daily focal point the visits by artist Andrew Wyeth (based on the real American artist). The home itself, with its rich past, and Alvaro, then Christina, become Wyeth’s muses – the young artist sees in them something that others have failed to.
The narrative cuts back to Christina’s early years in the house, from her childhood fever and the ensuing disability that ultimately shapes her life. Christina’s education, despite her keen intellect and her being the most promising child in class, is cut short when her struggling parents insist she help on the farm and with the raising of her siblings, three younger brothers. Beset by increasing pain and with her ability to walk slowly deteriorating, she still has hopes of a fulfilling life, especially when wooed by an eligible young man, Walton, who continues to visit Christina each summer even when he’s attending Harvard. But as Christina witnesses friends and family find husbands and wives, and become parents, she wonders if she too will ever leave the family home and find a normal life.
A Piece of the World is a novel based on many real life elements in the story of Christina Olson, muse of Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known work, Christina’s World [pictured above]. With nods too to the great American female writers, Emily Dickinson and Willa Catha, A Piece of the World is a realistic portrait of rural, early 20th Century life.
Baker Kline thoroughly researched much of the real Olson’s life for her fictional account and the result is a compelling, often heartrending, story of growing old, living with disability, the random injustices of life and the poignancy of missed opportunity. It’s an eloquent portrayal of the passage of time and the-what-and might-have-beens through the character of the stubborn Christina. But, despite the broken hearts and broken promises, there is ultimately hope offered by this exquisite novel. As Christina’s grandmother once said, ‘There are many ways to love and be loved.’
Christina Baker Kline is the bestselling author of Orphan Train, a critically acclaimed novel that spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. She was born in Cambridge, England, and grew up in England, Tennessee, and Maine.
By Liz Durnan