by Daisy Whitney
September 3, 2013
Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Source: Around the World ARC Tours
Seventeen-year-old Julien is a romantic—he loves spending his free time at the museum poring over the great works of the Impressionists. But one night, a peach falls out of a Cezanne, Degas ballerinas dance across the floor, and Julien is not hallucinating.
The art is reacting to a curse that trapped a beautiful girl, Clio, in a painting forever. Julien has a chance to free Clio and he can’t help but fall in love with her. But love is a curse in its own right. And soon paintings begin to bleed and disappear. Together Julien and Clio must save the world’s greatest art . . . at the expense of the greatest love they’ve ever known.
Like a master painter herself, Daisy Whitney brings inordinate talent and ingenuity to this romantic, suspenseful, and sophisticated new novel.A beautifully decorated package makes it a must-own in print.(Goodreads Summary.)
I’ve seen this book described as “Night at the Museum with a feminist twist” and there are definitely some correlations there. But as I was reading Starry Nights I kept thinking that it read as a fairy tale, a fairy tale with an awesome dose of art history added in.
There is a curse and there is a myth. There is a love at first sight type of romance built in as well. And the art! For me, someone who got her bachelors degree in art history and worked as a curator in my local musuem, this book triggered so many feelings of nostalgia. It took me back to my college days and a trip to Paris when I was 20, where I was lucky enough to see nearly all of the art mentioned in Whitney’s book.
And I know that this book was a labor of love for Whitney to write, being an art history degree holder herself. I can tell you that it made me feel very wistful and a little sad that I no longer work in the art field. It made me miss my museum days. But it also made me remember why I love art so much in the first place.
As much as I love the art themes in Starry Nights, I am as equally enamored with the characters that Whitney has crafted. First and foremost the extremely likable protagonist Julien. A male POV is always a bonus, but Julien is something special. Julien, as the son of both an art history professor and the curator of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris’ preeminent collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings, has an appreciation of art running through his veins. In fact, Julien is an artist himself, though he grudgingly admits not a very good one. And that’s another character trait I will always be drawn too: the self deprecating ones. Julien freely admits that his strengths don’t lie in academics either. But he loves art. He is passionate about it. When his grades are slipping in school, his mother bribes him by agreeing to let him have after hours privilege’s at the Museum. And the thing about it is this: Julien recognizes that a teenage boy loving, art, music and theatre isn’t exactly considered cool. Even for a French teenager residing in Paris. But it doesn’t matter because to Julien, the museum is Holy Ground. And the only religion he believes in is art. Come on. How could I NOT love this guy?
I love the secondary characters as well. There is Simon, Julien’s best friend who is funny, charismatic, and loyal to his friend. There is some great banter between these two guys. There is Bonheur, self named after the famous Rosa Bonheur a 19th century woman artist who liked to dress in men’s clothing. The twist here is that Starry Night’s Bonheur is a quirky new friend to Julien who likes to dress in women’s clothing. Bonheur and his younger sister Sophie are eccentric and fun, known for throwing the type of parties that reminded me of the artist gatherings during the turn of the 20th century that made Paris famous. I love arty, quirky personalities in secondary characters.
And did I mention that this book is not only set in Paris but features a cast of French teens? This isn’t your typical American-in-Paris/ fish out of water storyline. I loved this about Starry Nights. In fact Julien, who speaks several languages admits that one of the things he actually IS pretty good at is capturing accents. Especially American accents. He can slip into a Bostonian accent with ease and turn right around and nail the southern drawl of a Georgia native. These little details helped round out his character even more and I love that Whitney included them.
So, in my opinion, the characters and their authentic voices are one of the strongest aspects of Starry Nights. But what about the story itself?
In Starry Nights, Julien discovers that at night, in the hours when his mother’s Museum is dark and silent, the art comes alive. Degas’ ballerinas leap out of the frame. Van Gogh’s Dr. Gachet and Manet’s Olympia step out of the canvas and into each other’s arms. This is a recent development for Julien who is both spellbound and more then a little freaked out. He doesn’t know if he’s hallucinating or if this is real. All Julien knows is that the art that he loves so much is coming to life before his, and only his, very eyes.
But there is more to the story. In the Musee d’Orsay, and her sister musuem, the Louvre, some works of art are changing, and not for the better. Many of the world’s most well known masterpieces are fading out, growing sick, and are in danger of being lost forever.
Along with this mystery, Julien is about to experience even more strange events when a long lost Renoir surfaces and he finds himself falling head over heels in love with the girl pictured in it.
Now listen, I am no fan of instalove in the books I read. Shoot, I’d rather deal with a love triangle than a romance that progresses too quickly and feels false. But in Starry Nights, Julien falls for the girl in the Renoir painting very quickly. Even before she emerges from the canvas itself, Julien has developed very strong, almost obsessive, feelings towards her. But you know, like a fairy tale, I found myself able to suspend my disbelief and go with it. In a story where art comes to life, it’s not that much of a leap to imagine a romance quickly surfacing. Maybe it’s just the art lover in me but I cannot help but love that Julien, so passionate about art, falls in love with a girl in a painting. Kind of like the Pygmalion and Galatea myth, about a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation.
When Julien and Clio (the girl from the Renoir) set out to discover what’s going wrong with
so many paintings the story takes a turn towards the more fantastic and surreal. And even though I think some readers may find it to be a bit too far fetched, I thought that in this particular story, which reads so much like a fairy tale, filled with bits of magic here and there, it worked. And some of my favorite parts of the book were the odd yet fantastic descriptions of the finest works of art behaving VERY strangely. Like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa broadcasting dirty jokes all over the museum galleries and Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa springing a leak and flooding the floor of the Louvre with sea water. Plausible? No? Enchanting and fun to read about? YES. And there are the scenes where Julien himself enters paintings. I know I am a TOTAL art GEEK because when I read stuff like that? CHILL BUMPS:
I have been to Monet’s garden before. An hour west of Paris, it’s a popular destination for many visitors to France. You feel transported, like you’ve been swished back in time to the late 1800s when Monet painted so many of his masterpieces.
But this. This is more than the real thing. This is like a high-definition version of the gardens, with orange dahlias that blaze like the sun and pick poppies the color of a seashell. All the flowers are in bloom. In front of me lies a blanket of pale-blue forget-me-nots that look like the impressionist paintings they inspired because they are the impressionist paintings they inspired. All the colors are more vibrant than any palette I’ve seen on the other side. They are a new color wheel, like someone spun all the colors in the world faster and faster, and made them vibrate, and now they’ve become more electrifying versions of themselves, like the notes played by a virtuoso violinist.
“We’re not in Giverny,” I say, in a daze.
“No, we’re not.”
We are someplace else entirely, someplace that doesn’t exist for anyone else, anywhere else.
The mystery of the damaged art and why Clio in particular is trapped inside her painting, while perhaps not the strongest of storylines, was still creative and engaging to read. But I think the underlying messages that Whitney writes into Starry Nights, like her examination of how unfairly women artists were treated during the later years of the 19th century, and most importantly, the belief that art is for everyone, whether you’re a man or woman, rich or poor, a great artist or just a mediocre one, those are the parts of this book that I enjoyed reading the most. It’s a great message to send out there and I appreciate Whitney building this book around it.
And hey, did I mention the writing? This is my first Daisy Whitney book (I have a copy of When You Were Here and I’m reading as we speak) but I am impressed with how seamless and smooth her thoughts and ideas come across. I think she nailed a teenage boy’s voice pretty darn well, and I love the humor that’s found throughout the book too.
My mother and father are watching a TV show, of all things. They never watch TV. But tonight they feel the need to tune into a sitcom. They’re on the couch cracking up. The indignity of parents. The annoying, irritating, vexatious indignity of parents staying up late when I need to slip out.
I guess it obvious that I LOVED Starry Nights. I don’t know that all readers will connect with this book in the same way that I did because of my personal experiences, but I don’t think you have to be the world’s biggest art appreciator to enjoy it either. I think the story is enchanting, the romance is sweet, and the characters are well crafted. Learning some awesome facts about the art of Renoir and Monet among others is just icing on the cake. Give it a shot, and see if you will agree.