Phoebe seems to have everything going for her: She's a painter who creates art on wine bottle labels for a living, and she owns a modest home in Sonoma, complete with an enviously edible garden and a studio shack in the backyard. But at the surprise party for her fortieth birthday, a guest dourly predicts Phoebe's life will "go downhill." Or will it? A mysterious gentlemen hovering around the edges of the party turns out to be the ghost of Russian artist Marc Chagall, who becomes Phoebe's own personal life coach. Lucky for her, because with home foreclosure looming, her daughter flying the nest, no dating prospects in sight, and an economy that's perched precipitously on the edge of a cliff, Phoebe suddenly has a litany of issues to contend with. So, she accepts a friend's offer for an all-expense-paid trip to France on a singles bike tour along the dazzling Riviera. Along the way, she uncovers secrets buried since WWI, helps recover stolen art for her mentor, feasts on homemade pistou amid blooming lavender at a bed-and-breakfast in Provence, and falls in love.
It's been said that all fiction is largely autobiographical, and that's certainly the case in author Jill Koenigsdorf's buoyant tale of stolen art and a midlife crisis, Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall. A passionate lover of Chagall, Koenigsdorf decided to open a gallery in the famed art district of Santa Fe, New Mexico after running the Spring Fever flower shop in Oakland for twenty years. There was only one problem: No one was buying. "And I just started thinking, how sad that no one is spending money on art, flowers — how all of the beautiful things that feed your soul are the first to go," Koenigsgorf said. The financial risk she took opening her gallery became the inspiration for Phoebe's foreclosure crisis, which sets the novel's action moving. And although there's a romantic trip to France involved, the book isn't an escapist novel either. Koenigsgorf acknowledged that her winning heroine who is down on her luck but pluckily fighting could come off as a privileged American woman who doesn't have enough disposable income for trips to France and works of art. "I was worried that critics would say, 'Oh, poor little rich girl.'" Koenigsgorf said. "But it's not like that. I'm just talking about her dilemma."
Koenigsgorf deftly meshes that workaday arc with the real-life story of Europeans who "collected" precious works of art between the wars, when artists were too preoccupied to keep tabs on pieces they'd left for sale in German galleries or hanging on the walls of French cafes, whose foresighted owners allowed upcoming artists like Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera to trade art for food. The book also raises the question, should beautiful art be hidden away in a private collection? Koenigsgorf answers it this way: "Which is worth more: the dollar amount of the beauty, or how the art makes you feel?"
Koenigsgorf reads at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, January 17. 7:30 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com