By Laura Anne Bird | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun
Madison author Susan Gloss loves to fill her home with art. “I’ve never been the kind of person who moves into a house and leaves the walls bare,” she says. “My pieces might not have a lot of value, but they have a lot of meaning.”
Gloss’ second novel, “The Curiosities,” was released in February and centers on an artists’ colony based in a home in Madison’s Mansion Hill Historic District. Aptly, its walls are graced with a stunning collection of paintings, sketches and antique maps. “I wanted to write about the items we hold dear and what we surround ourselves with,” Gloss says. “But you don’t have to be an art aficionado to enjoy the story.”
“The Curiosities” offers a fascinating look at what motivates, challenges and sustains artists throughout their careers. But the residents of the colony don’t just strive to produce art, they also grapple with personal matters like grief, loss, infertility and miscarriage. This realistic edge makes “The Curiosities” relatable on many levels.
Fans of Gloss’ first novel, “Vintage,” may remember the elegant character of Betsy Barrett. “I’m very inspired by women who have a sense of style, no matter the age,” says Gloss. “A lot of readers wanted to see more of her.” Betsy returns in “The Curiosities,” having bequeathed her home for the purpose of the artists’ colony.
Gloss earned her law degree from UW-Madison and lives with her husband and two young sons on the Near East Side. “I love novels with a strong sense of place,” she says, which is why Madison itself serves as a vibrant character in her book. “Particularly in winter, we have a sweeping vantage point. Our backyard extends to the other side of Lake Monona.”
Some of Susan Gloss’ favorite books feature artists while beautifully depicting their creative processes:
THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Buchanan
This novel, based in Paris in 1878, focuses on three sisters living in poverty. One is a ballerina who becomes a muse for Edgar Degas. “Buchanan brings Belle-Époque Paris to life, from working-class slums to the stage of the opera house,” says Gloss.
MADAME PICASSO by Anne Girard
Girard’s novel takes place in 1911, also in Paris. “I was swept up in the love story of Eva Gouel, a costume maker at Moulin Rouge, and the young Pablo Picasso in his early days as an artist.”
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt
“A good art heist story always draws me in.” This Pulitzer-prize- winning book—“among my favorite novels of all time”—tracks the haunting whereabouts of a 17th-century painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius.
RODIN’S LOVER by Heather Webb
Webb’s novel unwinds the story of Camille Claudel, who served as apprentice to artist Auguste Rodin and had a tempestuous relationship with him. “Claudel was a brilliant sculptor in her own right but struggled in the shadows cast by Rodin’s rising fame and her own mental illness.”
THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer
“I love novels with multiple viewpoints,” says Gloss. Wolitzer tells the stories of six New Yorkers who meet at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970s. As the book follows them into adulthood, some pursue their artistic dreams while others stray far from the people they thought they’d become.
Read Susan Gloss’ essay on pregnancy loss and infertility online here.