While I liked the author's previous novel, The Girl in the Hyacinth Dress, it also made me hesitant to pick up this novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I've seen Tiffany glass at a few museums, and it is absolutely gorgeous. However, while I enjoyed The Girl in the Hyacinth Dress, it wasn't exactly a gripping piece - it was a series of vignettes, most of which were moving and had strong characters but I wasn't sure if I really wanted to read an entire novel told at that pace rather than a series of related stories. Overall, I would say I probably got exactly what I expected. It seemed like it took me forever to finish this novel, not because it was bad, but it was paced rather leisurely so I wasn't in a hurry to find out what happened next.
Clara Driscoll was the head of the Women's Department for Tiffany Glass, run by Louis Comfort Tiffany (son of the jewelry store Tiffany). In recent years, it has come to light that Clara created the original Tiffany lamp design, or was at least a very crucial part of the creation process. Of course, she didn't receive any public recognition for her part, and people assumed they were a Tiffany creation. While I can understand her frustration with this lack of recognition, I also feel like this would be normal. Even today, just because a certain dress has a designer label such as Oscar de la Renta doesn't mean I assume he designed the dress - instead, I would believe that it was designed with his vision in mind by people he hired because their talents and vision were in line with his. However, I am sure that the person actually behind the dress would appreciate some recognition. And today, Tiffany & Co has different lines of jewelry named after their designers, so occasionally the designers can get some recognition. In this novel, Clara greatly admires Tiffany's vision and creativity, but also feels conflicted for the reasons above. Additionally, Tiffany has a policy not to hire married women, so the book's description makes it sound as if Clara has to make a choice between professional and personal fulfillment though I don't feel like that was portrayed as that much of a conflict, especially for the majority of the novel. Clara has already left the women's department once to marry but returned upon her husband's death.
The novel basically follows Clara's life from her return to Tiffany Glass after the end of her first marriage around 1892 through around 1909, covering almost two decades. While there are some obvious conflicts, the novel is written in such a way that they barely seem like conflicts. To be honest, the characters seemed a bit flat to me. Clara becomes engaged at one point, develops friendships with various people at her boarding house, and guides and mentors many girls and women in the art of glass cutting, selecting and designing. At one point, the women's department also comes under attack from the men who feel like the women are threatening their jobs. Additionally, Clara is often irritated by the money making aspect of the job, feeling that the men in charge of the budget are too concerned with quick reproducibility rather creativity and thus impede on her artistic vision.
However, I wish the novel had been accompanied by pictures - Vreeland gives amazing and detailed descriptions of the lamps and glasses that they make, and has definitely done a lot of research into the glass industry. While this makes for some very nice and interesting passages, it doesn't lead itself to a very plot driven or exciting narrative. Basically, if someone is interested in the process behind Tiffany lamps, this book definitely has the information. If someone is looking for a plot driven novel, this isn't it. I'm pretty sure you could skip several pages, and it wouldn't exactly matter to the understanding of the story. In a way this is unfortunate, since from what I understand Clara was rather unconventional, and while the novel certainly hints at it, it seems to lack a certain amount of energy. This doesn't make it a bad novel at all, but it does mean it took me forever to finish since I was easily distracted by other things such as Facebook and DVDs rather than my need to see what happened to Clara since it didn't feel like anything really happened to Clara even though this isn't true.