A debut novel by Anacortes, Washington, author Linda Stewart Henley reminds us that Edgar Degas, a preeminent French painter of the 19th century, spent some salutary time in New Orleans.
In “Estelle,” Henley uses accounts of Degas’ trip in the city, where he stayed with American relatives in 1872 and 1873. She combines these details with a fictional story that takes place 100 years later.
The story starts in 1970, when Anne Gautier inherits a house in a once-grand but now derelict section of New Orleans. Even though she is just out of college and working as an intern at an art museum, she commits to preserving the old house with money from her inheritance.
In the process, she discovers both a portrait and a journal indicating that her ancestors had extensive interactions with Degas.
The chapters in this book alternate between Anne’s 20th century story and the story of Degas’ 19th century visit, which is told from the perspective of Estelle, the wife of Degas’ younger brother, René.
As was not unaccustomed in those days, Estelle and René were not only husband and wife, they were also first cousins. They had become acquainted a decade earlier when her family moved to Europe to avoid the Civil War.
When the conflict ended, René and another Degas brother, Achille, got involved in their American uncle’s (Estelle’s father’s) cotton brokerage in New Orleans.
But now, during the Reconstruction period, their business model is failing because they have to pay for labor once performed by slaves. René and Achille hope to rope their brother into coming to America and helping them prop up the business.
Edgar is willing to come for a visit but he isn’t interested in cotton. In fact, he is in a slump of his own. Although he has pursued work as an artist for 20 years, he has not met success. On this trip, he is not planning to create any new paintings.
Estelle, however, coaxes him at least to do portraits of the family while he is with them.
Fast-forward to the 20th century, where Anne is learning more about Degas and his connections to her family. In some ways, these mirror her own family’s dysfunction.
“Estelle” is an ambitious undertaking. It combines history, art, mystery and family saga. Occasionally, the author struggles with all of this. There are gaps in what would be helpful historical reference, and there are glitches in continuity and plausibility. Estelle is going blind, for example, but sometimes when the author needs her to, she can see just fine.
Even so, this book does offer a look at the mid-20th century tug-of-war that developed between urban renewal advocates and historic preservationists. The book captures an interesting slice-of-life of New Orleans in the 1970s. Best of all, it provides fascinating glimpses into 19th century New Orleans Creole society.