The follow-up to Susan Gloss's successful debut, Vintage, is a charming mid-western story of artists, inspiration, and how to reinvent your life with purpose and flair.
Nell Parker has a PhD in Art History, a loving husband named Josh, and a Craftsman bungalow in Madison, WI. But her last pregnancy ended later in the second trimester, and rather than pausing to grieve, she pushes harder for testing and fertility treatments. Urging Nell to apply for jobs, Josh believes his wife needs something else to focus on other than a baby that may never be.
Finding a job turns out to be difficult for an art historian . . . until Nell sees the ad seeking a director for a new nonprofit called the Mansion Hill Artists' Colony. The colony is the brainchild of the late, unconventional society dame Betsy Barrett, who left behind her vast fortune and a killer collection of modern art to establish an artist-in-residency program to be run out of her lakeside mansion. The executor of Betsy's estate simply hands Nell a set of house keys and wishes her luck, leaving her to manage the mansion and the eccentric personalities of the artists who live there on her own.
Soon one of the artists, a young metal sculptor named Odin, is keeping the other residents awake with his late-night welding projects. Nell is pretty sure that Annie, a dreadlocked granny known for her avant garde performance pieces, is dealing drugs out of the basement "studio." Meanwhile Paige, an art student from the university, takes up residence in the third-floor turret, experimenting with new printing and design techniques, as well as leading a string of bad boyfriends upstairs when she stumbles home late at night.
Despite all the drama, Nell finds something akin to a family among the members of the creative community that she’s brought together. And when her attraction to Odin begins to heat up, Nell is forced to decide what will bring her greater joy—the creative, inspired world she's created, or the familiar but increasingly fragile one of her marriage.
From the Author:
The idea for The Curiosities hit me while I was on a long drive, alone in the car. As the mom to two young, rambunctious boys, alone time is something that rarely happens. Ditto for peace and quiet. Lucky for me, the solitude and space on that summer drive home from a visit with an out-of-town friend was exactly what I needed to dream up the idea for the follow-up to my debut novel, Vintage.
If you’re picturing a woman driving a convertible with a scarf tied around her hair, sunglasses flashing fashionably in the sunshine, think again. My vehicle is littered with stale goldfish crackers and Matchbox cars. Nonetheless, as I wracked my sleep-deprived brain for inspiration for a story that would stick with me long enough to write a second novel, I began to think about inspiration in general, and the creative process.
I’ve long been fascinated by how creative people work—not just writers, but also visual artists, comedians, and musicians—and how the process can vary so much from one person to the next. I started to wonder what it would be like for a group of artists with very different styles and processes to work together in close proximity, which led me to the idea of writing about a fictional artists’ colony in The Curiosities.
As I spoke with readers at library events and book clubs after the publication of Vintage, I got a lot of feedback from readers that they loved the secondary character of Betsy Barrett in that novel, and wanted to know more about her. I realized that I wanted to know more about her, too. I knew, from Vintage, that Betsy was well-traveled and was a philanthropist and patron of the arts. But, because she was a secondary character, I didn’t have much opportunity to develop her backstory within the pages of Vintage. The Curiosities allowed me to do that, since the artists’ colony in the story is run out of Betsy’s historic lakeside mansion. I was able to add depth to a familiar character, Betsy, while also creating several news ones in the resident artists of Odin, Paige, and Annie and the director of the artists’ colony, Nell.
Nell’s character filled an important role in the novel because, although she has a PhD in art history, she doesn’t actually create art herself. As soon as I started thinking about the tension that would be created by an organized academic trying to run a group of free-spirited artists, I knew I had the idea for my novel.
The Curiosities also grew out of my upbringing. My mother instilled in me a strong appreciation for the visual arts. Although I grew up in northern Wisconsin, my mother had a family membership to the Art Institute of Chicago. She would load my siblings and I into the minivan and drive for several hours to the city, where we’d view the museum’s world-class permanent collections and rotating exhibits. Although my mom was never formally trained in art history, she nonetheless volunteered at my elementary school to singlehandedly start up and teach an art appreciation curriculum without pay. That’s how much she loved art and wanted others to learn about it. As a middle schooler, I was mortified when my mother would show up in my classroom with her slides of Renoirs and O’Keefes—especially the latter, which looked a little bit too much like the diagrams in our sex ed classes and tended to spark jokes from the boys.
Adolescent embarrassment aside, I’m now grateful for the love of art my mother instilled in me. It led me to seek out additional knowledge in my research for The Curiosities. The three artists who live in the artists’ colony in the novel are fictional, but the art forms they practice—performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture—are very real, and I had to learn about those media in order to get the details of the characters’ lives right. Odin is a metal sculptor, so I found myself reading up on welding and on sourcing materials. Paige jumps from one artistic medium to another in the novel, so her character presented a particular challenge. For Annie’s character, I drew inspiration from real-life political movements, such as the women’s movement, and the role that artists have played in asking difficult questions of society.
What began as a kernel of an idea on a long drive eventually ended up as a 300-plus page novel. I just might have to take a long drive again, the next time I’m in need of some inspiration.