Julien Garnier lives in Paris with his parents where he attends the Lycee d'Aile. Julien has a deep connection to art; his mother runs the Musee d'Orsay, an art museum that displays works from 1884 to 1914 and he also sketches. He works at the Musee d'Orsay where he runs tours after school. Because of that he is allowed into the building whenever he wants. One night he sees a most astonishing sight - subjects in the paintings come alive before his very eyes. Dancers from the Degas paintings step out and pirouette, a peach rolls out from Cezanne and a black cat slinks down from Manet's Olympia. The art coming alive continues for several weeks before the beginning of his story.
Julien is not sure just yet what is happening to the art so he keeps what he has seen a secret. Meanwhile he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Auguste Renoir's lost painting, The Girl In The Garden to the Musee d'Orsay. This painting surfaced a month ago in a family of high fashion designers, the Clemenceau's, who claim to have had the painting in their family for over a hundred years. Julien is desperate to view this lost treasure, so as an incentive, his mother tells him if he does well in his literature class he will be able to see the painting before it goes up in the gallery.
A few days later, Julien's mother takes him to see the long lost Renoir at the Clemenceau's home on Montmartre. Mrs. Clemenceau's cross-dressing son, Bonheur, invites Julien to a surprise party for his eighteenth birthday on Friday evening. It is a surprise party because he will be giving away one of his strange ceramic creations, a five-legged calf, as a prize to the person who exhibits the best surprised expression during the party.
During his visit with Bonheur, Julien makes an interesting discovery in the Clemenceau home when he finds himself in the wrong room on the way to the bathroom; a chalk reproduction of half of Renoir's Dance at Bougival showing Suzanne Valadon who was also an artist herself and the first female painter admitted to an art school in France. Julien wonders what the connection is between the Clemenceau family and either Valadon or Renoir and how the Clemenceau family came to have the missing Renoir.
While Julien's mother reviews the documentation attesting to the authenticity of the Renoir painting, Bonheur shows the recovered Renoir painting to Julien. Julien is immediately taken with the painting, that of a beautiful girl with blonde hair in a flower garden and feels inexplicably drawn to it.
Meanwhile, Julien continues to experience strange phenomena around artwork. When he is with Emilie, an aspiring ballet dancer, he hears strains of Giselle which leads him to encourage Emilie to work towards getting in to the Paris ballet. When Julien and his friends attend Bonheur's party, Julien sneaks down into the basement below the trap door and can hear women's voices from below the basement floor. He later learns from Bonheur that these voices are those of the nine Muses from Greek mythology (Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania).
Julien learns that the house at Montmarte where Bonheur lives is the same house where Suzanne Valadon lived and that he is indeed distantly related to her. Bonheur tells Julien that The Girl in the Garden is not like other paintings and that his family has been entrusted to keep it safe. Bonheur allows Julien another chance to view the lost Renoir painting, Julien witnesses one slender finger from the beautiful girl slip out of the canvas, which shimmers with silver.
The strangeness continues when Julien is sent to the Louvre to check on sun damage on a Renoir painting. His hand is burned by the candle flame in a La Tour painting, he notices the repaired Renoir painting is showing damage again, and Rembrandt's Bathsheba has a drooping stomach. At first Julien thinks that he's crazy, but when he returns the next day to the Louvre, he discovers more paintings have damage.
Bonheur tells Julien that art is made to come alive in museums and that he has been told by the Muses that only special people like Julien can see art come to life. Bonheur also reveals to Julien that he speaks with the Muses who exist below his home and that they have given him the silver dust that he places in his five-legged ceramic calves. Bonheur tells Julien that the paintings can only come alive in museums.
Sure enough once The Girl In The Garden is hung in the Musee d'Orsay, the beautiful girl comes out of the painting, revealing herself to Julien as Clio one of the nine Muses. Clio and Julien go on dates in the museum, since Clio cannot leave the building. When Clio goes back into the painting she lives in Monet's garden and she also begins to take Julien into the paintings.
As the art begins to sicken, not only in the Louvre but in galleries and museums around the world, Julien begins to suspect that a terrible curse that involves Renoir and Clio might be behind the damage and that only he and Clio will be able to save the world's priceless art, at a cost that might mean losing everything that matters most to both.
Starry Nights is a unique and fantastical love story about a boy who falls in love with one of the muses who has been trapped in a painting due to a curse placed by Renoir. In this imaginative novel, Whitney has Clio and Julien go on dates where they travel from painting to painting - through Monet's works many of which include the bridge in his famous garden. The author has packed her story with numerous facts about paintings and various artists, although the painting at the center of the story is in fact, fictional. Nevertheless, readers might be inspired to look up Van Gogh's Starry Night, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Dancing at the Moulin Rouge, or Manet's Olympia.
The characters in Starry Nights are all very well drawn. Julien is a tender, romantic young artist who cares deeply about art as well as inspiring others to create art. Unlucky his first time in love, he finds his soulmate in Clio, the Eternal muse who spends her time inspiring art. Bonheur the cross-dressing son of the Clemenceaus is based on the real Rosa Bonheur who lived in the 1800's and was known for her portrayal of animals and for wearing men's clothing. He's a sweet soul who helps Julien recognize his ability to heal art as the only human muse and who believes in true love. It's unfortunate other characters in the novel were not more fully developed. Instead these characters such as Julien's friends, Simon and Lucy, were one dimensional and mostly uninteresting.
Readers may find the story line somewhat complex, fantastical and will have to make a careful reading of this novel, but they will be rewarded with a satisfying conclusion to this well written story.
To enjoy more of Renoir's beautiful paintings, check out this website, Pierre Auguste Renoir - the complete works.
Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney
New York: Bloomsbury 2013