Book Review: Estelle: A Novel by Linda Stewart Henley

Twenty-two-year-old museum intern and unknown artist, Anne Gautier, has undertaken a major project, restoring “an elegant house on one of the finest streets in New Orleans.” The grand old Creole home has been in her family for “five generations,” and when her grandfather died, he left her the home on Esplanade Avenue “ ‘where all the best French Creole families’ ” once lived, with the stipulation that she must “restore the property, [or] ownership will revert to the city.” Even though the house is not in “a good part of town,”Anne is determined to celebrate the historical home not only because of her own family but also because the home was an integral part of New Orleans’s history during the visit of Edgar Degas in 1872. In fact, Degas’s notebook, found in Anne’s attic, gives Anne the money she needs to begin the restoration, but her plans go sideways when someone breaks in and vandalizes the home, leaving  behind a threatening note and a mystery to solve. On top of this shocking discovery, Anne is trying to reconcile her feelings about Stella, the half-sister Anne recently met, and whether she might have something to do with the vandalism since she was left out of their grandfather’s will. Anne tries to rely on her new boyfriend, Sam, for advice, but he has begun acting strangely, sneaking around behind her back and hedging her questions. With no one to lean on, a demanding job, and her own artistic-inspiration waning, Anne may never see her beautiful home and its important history revived. 

The duel settings of New Orleans in 1870 and 1970 gives this novel an interesting perspective. The juxtaposition of the issues of the Musson and De Gas families to the modern trials of Anne and her own family provides perspective as well as education for the reader. Though on the surface their struggles seem completely unalike, in reality, the parallel stories are paradoxically similar. Estelle De Gas, sister-in-law and cousin of Edgar Degas, is a strong woman trying desperately to hold together her marriage to a cheating husband and maintain the expected appearance of a well-to-do proud Creole family all the while knowing the family’s fortunes have fallen, and she will soon be blinded by a hereditary disease. Anne is struggling to find her place in the world and to hold together what family she has left while dealing with her own untrustworthy partner, Sam. Though Sam admonishes her for “refusing to look at the practical realities of life,” she seeks “to make things beautiful,” just as Estelle does in encouraging Degas to find his inspiration in Nouvelle-Orleans. Anne wants desperately “to work things out for herself and make her own way in the world,” and though Estelle isn’t an unmarried young woman, she understands the integral role she plays within her own sphere of familial influence, her “abiding concern for the welfare of those she loved despite her many challenges.” The more Anne learns about Estelle, the more she realizes she needs “to take a leaf from Estelle’s book and find her own source of strength.”

Art plays a huge role within this novel. Edgar and Anne share the similar notion that “the life of an artist is not one easily shared with another.” Both are suffering from a lack of inspiration and direction. During the time Degas spent in America, he “had achieved little recognition,”and his brothers hope he will take an interest (and make an investment) in the family cotton business. Anne has given up her art for her busy internship and her flailing love life. Though the museum job isn’t her dream, she understands art is “ ‘not an easy way to make a living.’ ” She’s “avoided facing the truth” that she can’t live the “dreamer” life just as Degas begins to feel he must help his family by selling his work and sending them much-needed money. Eventually, New Orleans offers both a “new subject matter for [their] art,” Anne with her new-found sympathy for the poor of the city and Edgar with his own family’s business.

The growth of Anne’s relationship with her half-sister, Stella, in conjunction with Anne’s realization about the struggles of poverty-stricken New Orleanians is an interesting subplot. Anne has only recently learned of her sister’s existence because Stella, the product of a teenage dalliance, was given up for adoption immediately after her birth because of their grandfather’s racism since Stella was biracial. Anne’s overwhelming “guilt” over her “half-sister’s lost inheritance haunted her day and night,” and though she wants to share her inheritance, “she didn’t favor the idea of giving up part of her own share” to the “half-sister she barely knew.” Stella is also soon facing eviction because she lives in Section C, a “slum” where the houses are “more like shacks.” Anne could offer Stella a home in their grandfather’s former house, but she doesn’t really know her, and their fledgling relationship is awkward at best. In learning about her sister’s life, Anne begins to understand and sympathize with the vandals who destroyed part of her house “when a short distance away homes were being demolished” in a part of the city with as much historical importance as the area where rich Creoles once lived. Anne’s dynamic character growth is both inspirational and realistic. 

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

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