Reading Lately: Leesa Cross-Smith
My love for period pieces and historical fiction is so important to me I make sure I have extra room in some of my social media bios specifically to fit it in. Recently I saw a trailer for a forthcoming film called Tulip Fever and I fell in love. When this happens, most often I look for the book the film is based on. The book is also called Tulip Fever, and what a treat when the film company doesn't change the original title. Tulip Fever is a novel by Deborah Moggach and it is set in the 17th century. It is sexy and cheeky and sad where it needs to be. One running theme through most of my favorite period pieces (Emma, Pride & Prejudice, North & South, Becoming Jane, Atonement, Outlander, Poldark, Vikings, Belle, Far from the Madding Crowd, Anna Karenina, Grand Hotel) is either some sort of forbidden love or a couple who is torn apart for whatever reason and attempting to make their way back to one another. Tulip Fever is a book about a young woman married to an older man who hires a young painter to paint them. The young woman is easily seduced from her older husband and the rest of the book takes on a madcap plot of sorts with pregnancy, deceit, secrets, mistaken identities and stolen kisses. High adventures in sin and shame and whether there is or isn't a God and whether this God can or will forgive the heart of lust, passion and greed because if He is real, He is most indeed watching. For in Him we live and move and have our being. This is Amsterdam and there is tulipmania—passion about passion, passion about flowers. Flowers represent women, fecundity. Flowers mean romance, flowers mean remembrance, flowers mean death. First to flower, first to fall. The book is told in alternating points of view with even the paintings themselves having their say. Moggach writes things like “for even in death, a tulip is beautiful” and “his hands smelled of violets” and “art remains in the present tense, long after we humans are consigned to dust.” “Happiness floods her. Over the wall, in the apple tree next door, a blackbird pours out its song like coins, like sweet wine; oh her head is spinning.” My favorite line from the novel is “art lies, to tell the truth.” I read this and underlined it and went to bed; I rolled over and couldn't sleep because of it. Art lies to tell the truth. Fiction, a painting, a song. Lies! Lies, telling us the truth. Every time a couple in one of these period pieces isn't touching or kissing or stealing away, that's a lie. They are lying to themselves, to their hearts, to everyone. When they are finally able to be together or finally able to confess their undying love, that's our truth. There is a part (my favorite) in the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice where Darcy and Elizabeth touch for the very first time. Darcy takes her hand, helps her into the carriage. And afterwards, the camera focuses on his hand—his hand, stretching out at his side. He has touched her. Finally. And now we can begin. There was no truth before that touching . But alas! He touched her hand and told the truth. This doesn't mean that everylittlething or feeling in our actual lives should be pursued because it absolutely should not, but what I mean is storytelling. Art. Truth . What interests me is all that is not said and seen. What interests me is the possibility and almost and restraint amidst the fire—the longing look from across the room. The space between. What interests me is Darcy, wet from the pouring rain finally telling Elizabeth I love you. Most ardently. (Or the other BBC version where Darcy says you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.) Finally, we get the truth. The truth after all the lies. The truth, after hiding the desire. I desire this desire from my books, from my movies. The tenacity, the fight, the hope—the slow blooming. I'm a pleasure delayer, by nature. Sometimes these things end well and sometimes they end terribly, but re: art, we lie to tell the truth in spite of all that. Because the truth matters. In the end, the truth is all we have. And when we're finished, when we're done holding our breath, we open our mouths to tell the story all over again—once more from the beginning.
Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Press) and the editor of WhiskeyPaper. Her writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2015, and lots of literary magazines. She lives in Kentucky and loves baseball and musicals. Find more at LeesaCrossSmith.com.