In 1997, when Portland author Elizabeth Hickey started working on a novel about the life of a woman juggling her roles as an artist's model and mistress, she wasn't expecting her mix of historically minded low-brow lit and high art to form the basis of a blockbuster genre.
But then Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring hit bookstores in 2000. That book, a historical novel based on the character of a maid in the home of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, went on to sell more than a million copies and was the basis for a popular film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
Riding in the wake of Chevalier's unbridled success, Hickey's The Painted Kiss (Atria Books, 288 pages, $24) couldn't help but be plagued with an identity crisis when it hit shelves earlier this year. Both Chevalier's hit and Hickey's debut novel take the form of historical fiction intent on animating the otherwise still lives of some of world's most recognizable but unknown artists' models. Kiss explores the relationship between the Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and his mysterious mistress, Emilie Flöge. But Hickey's tome is no mere Girl knockoff; it's a knockout, as her elaborate prose successfully emulates Klimt's supercharged style.
Just one look at Vermeer's 340-year-old oil-on-canvas masterpiece, Girl, next to Klimt's famous turn-of-the-century painting, The Kiss, tells volumes about the unmistakable differences between the novels these works inspired. While Vermeer's painting studies the effects of cold, white light on pale Flemish skin, Klimt's work radiates heat. So it's only fitting that next to The Painted Kiss, the eroticism of Chevalier's book would, well, pale in comparison, not only because of the style, but also the subject matter of Klimt's art.
"He did a lot of drawings of women who were naked or masturbating," says 34-year-old Hickey, a new mother already at work on her next novel from her home on East Burnside Street. "A lot of them have orgasmic looks on their faces. But I think his work is also sensual in the way he used color. It's very exuberant and overflowing with passion." Passion aside, Hickey admits that historical fiction-even in its more prudish forms-comes with a special set of ethical dilemmas. "What if I've done somebody a terrible disservice?" she says. "What if I've imagined them completely wrong?"
Whatever reservations the author had, they didn't stop her from imagining and writing about the sex lives of dead people. And Klimt and Flöge aren't the only subjects of Hickey's retro-voyeurism. Klimt had a throng of lovers, many of whom are treated to their own steamy intercalary chapters in Hickey's novel. "The thing I feel most uncomfortable about," says Hickey, "is the way I portrayed Adele [one of Klimt's lovers]. Adele's niece is still alive, and the way she tells the story, Adele and her husband were very devoted to each other. I have a feeling she wouldn't be very happy with the way her aunt is portrayed."
But those concerns come with the territory. After all, it can't be all pleasant when someone raises history from the dead for a game of kiss and tell.