Zibby is joined by Carol Orange to talk about her debut novel, A Discerning Eye, and the rich art history at its core. The pair discuss Carol’s career shift from the art world to the literary, their shared appreciation for the study of art history, and the Gardner Museum robbery that inspired this book.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Carol. How are you?

Carol Orange: Hi. Good morning, Zibby.

Zibby: Good morning.

Carol: Thank you so much for having me this morning on your wonderful podcast.

Zibby: It’s such a thrill to have you after all of our book club discussions to discuss your book. As you know, this is a very informal podcast, so we can just jump in and start discussing A Discerning Eye. Thank you for sending it and all this great stuff. Carol, let’s start by you telling everybody what your book is about and what inspired you to write it.

Carol: Thank you, Zibby. What inspired me to write it, I was an art dealer in Boston. I’ve always been in love with art ever since I was a little girl. My parents used to take me to the Metropolitan Museum. I would get lost in those fabulous paintings. Then when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I took history of art. I would sit on the edge of my seat when the lights went out and the discussions began about art. Art has always been something that’s very important to me in my life. I would lose myself in paintings. What inspired me is that I was living in Boston, I had a gallery, and the robbery happened at the Isabella Gardner Museum, which is a magical place. Have you ever been there?

Zibby: Yes.

Carol: Good. It’s a magical place. Isabella Stewart Gardner was just an incredible woman. She was very wealthy. She could’ve done lots of things with her money. What she chose to do was to build a museum and put together an art collection that is just fantastic. She built this Italian palazzo in the middle of Boston. The outside is very severe. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. When you go inside and you see the very light pink Venetian walls and the nasturtiums falling down from the top of the balcony down these walls, and then on the ground, there are all these gorgeous plants and Roman antiquities, you’re transported to another world. I used to go there very often, not only for art. One of my neighbors was a concert pianist, and she used to play at the Gardner on Sundays. It’s an amazing setting. When this robbery happened, this theft of thirteen objects, I just was devastated. I thought, how could someone do that? They’re depriving the public of being able to see one of the rare Vermeers, which is one of my favorite paintings, The Concert. There were only thirty-six Vermeers in the world. How could someone dare to steal this great art? I started to think about it. Who would be so nasty? Who would dare to do this?

I thought it had to be someone really clever because the paintings that they chose, there seemed to be a purpose. They went out of their way to steal the Manet which is on the first floor not near the Rembrandts and the Vermeers in the Dutch Room. The Manet is in a very crowded room with lots of other art, so they had to specifically go after that Manet. Actually, I love that Manet of the lonely gentleman. He’s all dressed up wearing a top hat and tails. He’s sitting at a café table with a half-drunk glass of wine. Part of his face is in shadow. He looks really lonely sitting there. There’s something compelling about this very simple portrait. Whoever was the mastermind, and I do believe there was a mastermind, went out of their way to steal that particular painting. It just made me so upset. I started imagining who might be behind this. Obviously, the mafia was involved in some way. I do believe those two people who dressed up as policemen who got into the museum late at night on St. Patrick’s eve had to be mafia connected. The mastermind was super intelligent. They had a plot. I started to imagine that it was someone from a foreign country, someone who knew the Gardner. I thought about Harvard graduations. You went to Harvard, so you know what an international —

Zibby: — I went to the business school.

Carol: At the business school, didn’t you have lots of international students?

Zibby: Yes, many.

Carol: Little Cambridge is an international place. There are so many people who come there from all over the world to go to the divinity school or to business school or law school or as an undergraduate. I imagined that someone from another country went to a Harvard graduation. When you go to a Harvard graduation and you have a long weekend, one of the things that you do in Boston is go to the Gardner Museum, right?

Zibby: Yes, I went with my dad and stepmom.

Carol: I imagined it was someone who went to a Harvard graduation and went to the Gardner Museum and noticed, because unfortunately it’s easy to notice, that the security there is a bit lax. This clever, maniacal person said, hmm, you know, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to get my favorite paintings from the Gardner. That’s what my book is about. That’s what inspired it.

Zibby: Wow. I love that story. I love how so much fiction is what if meets emotion. You’re upset about the theft. Then you imagine, what could it be? Then next thing you know, you have a novel. It’s amazing. When you studied art history in college — I loved art history, by the way. I took it every semester in college. I am huge art fan in general. Although, I don’t spend much time in museums anymore. I did take this amazing class by Christopher Wood about Dutch, eighteenth century, Vermeer and Rembrandt and everybody. What is some of your favorite time of art and all of that?

Carol: I do, of course, love Vermeer. I want to say something about Isabella Stewart Gardner. When she bought the Vermeer in Paris at an auction, Vermeer was not well-known. He was not well-known, so it was really impressive that she decided, I have to have that painting. Now he’s extremely well-known. She had been schooled by Bernard Berenson, another Harvard person, who really taught her about the Italian Renaissance world, Italian Renaissance paintings. It is interesting because those jewels were not stolen, the Giotto, the Titian, Rape of Europa, which is one of the world’s most famous paintings. The fact that she, on her own without Berenson, selected Vermeer — I do love the Dutch masters. I think that they capture — Rembrandt’s faces follow you around the room. They’re so evocative. They’re so real. They’re authentic. They have so much character. I mean, these people have lived. I do love the Dutch masters. I was very lucky. After graduation, I married my husband who was studying for his PhD in political science. We went to live in London. I was so fortunate because I found a job as a research editor of a book on Spanish art. Very honestly, I did not know much at that point about Spanish art. I was so fortunate because my advisor on this book of Spanish art was named Xavier de Salas. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, and so erudite but also funny and warm and fascinating. He later became the director of The Prado Museum.

Because I had this job, I fell in love with Goya and with Velázquez and El Greco and then some of the lesser-known Spanish artists like Ribera, like Zurbarán. There’s a great Zurbarán in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which fortunately is still there. Because of Xavier de Salas, I loved Spanish art. They also really portrayed people with lines in their faces, with character. Then I like contemporary art. I like some of the German artists like George Grosz. He’s in the Neue Galerie. His portraits, which are very, very different than the Dutch and the Spanish artists — of course, they’re more contemporary. His faces are really amazing. He captures pre-Nazi Germany in the faces of people. You can really see this. My taste is kind of eclectic. I’m in awe of Picasso, not because he’s so famous or because his prices are so high, but because he continually reinvented himself. He was abstract. He was cubist. Then he played around with pottery. Then he did sculpture. He played around with every possible art material. His inventiveness, his continual growth going from the blue period, which was kind of semi-realistic, to super abstract — oh, I love his collages, by the way. I don’t know any artist who has been as inventive as Picasso.

Zibby: Carol, take me from you studying Velázquez in London to now, to writing this novel. Do me the short version of your whole life. How did you end up writing this novel? How did you find your passion in writing? How did we get here?

Carol: Thank you, Zibby. That’s a really good question. I always loved writing. I was an English major. I minored in art history. I was always in love with writing. When I came back from living in London and working in art book publishing, I thought I would work for Abrams. Actually, I couldn’t get a job doing that. I ended up working for this really brilliant man named Jason Epstein at Random House. I was his editorial assistant. I didn’t know how to type. The other thing was, I hadn’t graduated from Radcliffe, which were his two criteria. I worked for Jason. I commuted from Princeton. My husband was finishing his PhD. Jason was just so brilliant. I got to meet writers like William Styron, one of my favorite writers of all time, and the infamous Philip Roth and just all these extraordinary writers. That was my dream. I didn’t dare think of myself as a novelist. I was too young and didn’t have the confidence. I wanted to work in publishing.

When I moved to Boston from New York, my choices were really much more limited. I did spend a bit of time, not much because after you’ve worked for Jason Epstein, no one can possibly meet that criteria — I worked at the Atlantic Monthly Press. In any case, over time, I started really taking myself more seriously and thinking about myself as a writer. I mainly worked in education. I developed a curriculum for a nonprofit organization called The Educational Services. With a group of people, I developed a curriculum called Black Americans in America and Irish Americans in America. It was intended for ninth graders. I not only wrote with other people, I think there were five people on our team, this curriculum, I also taught ninth grade without any experience. Writing and reading has always been my passion. Over the years, I’ve taken lots of writing classes. I’ve gone to many writing workshops. I hope that I’ve gotten better and better over time.

Zibby: This couldn’t be your first novel.

Carol: It is.

Zibby: No. You must have some in the drawer or something. I feel like most novelists have a stash in their file cabinet or something.

Carol: I understand. I know you have some. I did write a book. I, again, was very fortunate. I got to live in Paris for two years. I researched the life of the writer George Sand. I did write a biography of George Sand. I just was blown away by her life and the life of other women during this period in France when women had no rights. They had no rights. They couldn’t get divorced. They couldn’t own property. Here were these women. George Sand, of course, had to write under a male pseudonym to get recognized. Another one was Marie d’Agoult who wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Stern. She was a historian. She was the lover of Franz Liszt while George Sand was the lover of Frédéric Chopin. These women were extraordinary. That’s in my drawer, a biography of George Sand. I have had some short stories published. I really was intimated by the novel form. Now I’m working on my second.

Zibby: Oh, good. Wait, so how did you do it? Did you outline the whole thing? How did you approach it? How did you dive in? How did you get it done?

Carol: I did outline. I learned how to outline. Initially, I just wrote without any thought of where it was going. I was in a writing group. One of the members of the writing group taught me how to outline. I do think outlining is wonderful. It’s a lively outline. It’s not static. It did take me ten years to write this because I did have a full-time job while I was doing it, of course, and I’m a mom and a grandmother.

Zibby: Aw. How old are your grandkids?

Carol: I only have one. I envy you having four.

Zibby: They might not have kids. Who knows? I have four kids.

Carol: The odds are in your favor. My best friend from childhood, we’ve been friends since we were seven. That’s another book that I’ve been writing, this incredible friendship that we’ve had. She has three kids and nine grandchildren. I have envy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to stock up on kids’ birthday presents and all that. Wait, what is your next novel about?

Carol: My next novel is about Nazi stolen art. My husband was a German Jewish refugee. I met him at Cornell. His story was amazing. He and his parents left Germany, if you can believe this, in the fall of 1942. I don’t really understand exactly how they were able to leave. They were an interesting family. My husband died young in his fifties. I became deeply attached to his great-aunt who lived in New York. I learned from her that the family had lived in this region of Germany for six hundred years. They did have some art, but they weren’t as concerned with it because the grandparents died in Auschwitz. What does art mean when life is lost in such a horrible way? Anyway, about six years ago, I went to Germany to this beautiful little town that they came from in South Germany. It’s south of Stuttgart. I had met people with Greta, who was Eric’s aunt, at the Goethe-Institut. I had met some German people. Greta brought me to this meeting. They wanted to meet survivors. They were such fabulous people.

They just wanted to do whatever they could to help survivors and to make sure that genocide like this never happened again. I became friendly with some of them. I went to this little town after Greta passed away. I went to this little town. I saw this gorgeous house that my husband’s family lived in and this beautiful town. I thought, how could this have happened there? It was really amazing. We were in the ancient cemetery, not a new one, but an ancient Jewish cemetery behind the house. It was the summertime. I was looking at the gravestones. All of a sudden, it started to hail with hailstones the size of quarters. It was like, I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to write this story. I decided to make it about art and to have Portia involved, Portia being working, in this case, with Julian Henderson, the art crime chief from the FBI. They both give up their jobs. They become PIs. I made it about getting the art back, but I’ve included all the information about the family. That’s what my second novel is about.

Zibby: That sounds very powerful and fantastic. Wow, good for you. That’s amazing. Quickly, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Carol: I do because it’s been quite a journey. The most important thing is to believe in yourself, to learn as much as you possibly can. It is really hard, Zibby, to find good critical feedback that can make whatever it is that you’re writing even better. You have to learn as much as you possibly can from as many sources as you can. Then believe in yourself. Believe in the authenticity of your own voice. The other piece of advice is to be persistent, to hang in there because there’s a lot of rejection along the way. None of us like rejection. In actual fact, rejection, it depends on the kind of rejection you get. Rejection can really help you understand what you need to do in order to make it even better.

Zibby: Excellent. Carol, I’m so glad we got a chance to talk and I got to learn more about you and read your book. You’re a beautiful writer. I’m so excited about your next book. Wow, what a story. What a life. Thank you.

Carol: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s just so wonderful to be in your book group and to know you. I hope to get to know you even better in November. You’re a very special person. You have such a generosity of spirit. I love it. I just love it.

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, to the retreat. I’m excited.

Carol: I’m very excited. That’s wonderful. That is really in the spirit of George Sand and Marie d’Agoult. They had salons in Paris where they invited people to listen and learn. Thank you, Zibby, for organizing this.

Zibby: My pleasure. What an honor to be in the same sentence as them. Thank you, Carol. I’ll see you at book club.

Carol: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you. Have a wonderful day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Carol: Bye.


A DISCERNING EYE by Carol Orange

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