San Francisco magazine: "A Sensual Palette"
I hope that all the people who made The Confessions of Max Tivoli a local bestseller will look at Nina Schuyler's first novel. What helped make Andrew Sean Greer's book so popular (and aided our belief in a narrator who aged backward) was a loving evocation of San Francisco in a much earlier day. Schuyler, who teaches writing at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, goes Greer one better by writing parallel stories, each set in 1870-one in Japan just emerging from feudalism; the other in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.
There's nothing dry or arcane about either tale. Schuyler revels in colors, scents, and sounds; her descriptions are as textured as the images Ayoshi, her sorrowing Japanese wife, paints of her lost love. ("Her mind skips across the blues, like a flat stone on water. A brush made from the tail of her father's horse dips into a pool of bruise blue and prances across the white sheet of paper.") In one excellent scene, Jorgen, a badly wounded soldier now laboring for a profiteer in gloomy mansion, is astounded to see a tree bearing all its branches, its leaves reflecting the gold and purple evening sky. Paris has been besieged for months, and most of its trees have been axed for firewood. He thinks of the painting beneath his bed, "te ouple standing underneath a magnificent old tree and the branches splintering the light. The leaves, a dark red-purple." Ayoshi-whose husband is a potter, favored by the harsh new government because of his exports to the West-impulsively hid this painting by wrapping it around a ceramic bowl sent to France.
More than a plot devise, the painting, with its tender, vivid rendering of subtle details, slowly softens Jorgen's bitterness and guilt, helps him care for the world again. Meanwhile, Ayoshi, her husband, and a young Buddhist monk contend with the violent forces hauling Japan into the modern age. The books wears its scholarship well: the carrier pigeons with their silk-tied messages, Japan's flimsy wooden shops and teahouses, the starving Frenchwomen who fought in that ancient war are integral to the stories, not a weary researcher's extraneous particulars. Beyond the well-paced unfolding of the plots-and it is impossible to predict how either will end-the novel immerses a reader in worlds far removed from our own, my favorite form of escapism.