Holland, 1631. Sara de Vos is a painter honored with being the first woman master accepted into the Guild of St. Luke. It sounds like prominence and respect beyond the reach of most of her era — and it is — but Sara lives in poverty, often serves as assistant to her better known husband in his art in order to make ends meet, and experiences some tragic turns that will have profound effects on her art.
New York, 1957. Marty and Rachel de Groot seemingly have it all: health, wealth, social status, and the happiness that comes with such a life. However, a painting above their bed, passed down through Marty’s family for centuries — At the Edge of a Wood (1636) — has a sinister history: none of its owners ever reached the age of sixty. When it’s discovered the painting is a master forgery, a scheme to find and entrap the forger leads Marty to the door of young Ellie Shipley, a struggling graduate student and art restorer who convinces herself she was duped into copying the work in the first place.
Sydney, 2000. Professor Shipley is curating an exhibition of the female Dutch master painters of the Golden Age, and her expertise is called upon to verify the authenticity of the only known surviving work of Sara de Vos: At the Edge of a Wood. But there are two such paintings in the exhibit’s incoming inventory, and revelations could unravel Ellie’s life and reputation.
Once I decide to read a book like this, my first order of business to get the most out of it is to do a little digging into the author and the inspirations that went into the novel. For those with adequate skills in Google Fu and the desire to exercise them, one can easily find author interviews, examples of the 17th century Dutch masters, and some biographical information on such masters. I suspect most won’t bother, but I enjoy the process and the results.
I have but three minor gripes surrounding this book, none of which are even remotely a big deal. I feel I just need to exorcise these little demons real fast before I can give this book its proper due. The first is that the story in all three time periods is told in present perfect tense. It’s supposed to be the sort of thing that offers a story a sense of immediacy regardless of time period. It’s a personal choice that often comes across for me as more than a bit pretentious and unnecessarily “artsy” for its own sake, a point thankfully overcome by the quality of the story itself and the richness of the characters. I can’t tell you how rare that seems to be, which is why I tend to object to the use of present tense in stories. When the tale is this good, it’s hard to hold such things against an author. Second, I’m not sure when the word “chuffed” became every author’s favorite word, but I’m seeing it everywhere in fiction lately. I don’t know why it bothers me; I only know that it does. I feel similarly about when people say they “crushed” some objective in their lives. Whatever. Third, the cover art for the hardcover and audiobook does not fit the story. I’m not sure who decided it was appropriate. It’s attractive, certainly, and catches the eye with the bright yellow scarf against a dark background. I’m sure it’s supposed to be reminiscent of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, thus suggesting the Dutch masters of old, but that immediate comparison is precisely what kills the idea for me, for reasons that will become clear before this review is over. Would it not be more appropriate to actually feature a work of a 17th century female Dutch master, perhaps one of the inspirations for the character and/or painting at the center of this story that does survive to our present day (knowing that one such inspiration has no surviving extant works)? Or something that is at least evocative of such? There is a painting towards the end of this book, for example, that is clearly based upon Judith Leyster’s self-portrait, and it would be just as easy to find a landscape from the era similar to At the Edge of a Wood. I need not have thought further about it, as it turns out. The cover art was switched out on the paperback release to a wooded scene similar to the fictional painting, so that’s a marketing win that suggests I’m far from being the first to say something.
With those minor gripes out of the way, I can discuss the novel on its own terms and in conjunction with my own perceptions and understandings.
As one would expect, the three story threads interweave and converge. What’s unexpected is how tenderly this novel is written, and how many interweaving threads in my own life it touched in the process with a level of compassion that the story itself did not engender in the conflicts put in the paths of its characters. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but it’s not a something I’ve often encountered in a novel. It was a welcome surprise that reminded me that writing style and storycraft aren’t the only things a novel has working for or against it. Sometimes it’s the events in a reader’s life that plays upon it as well, not that a writer would have any insight into such things. That’s the nature of any art. It’s a “conversation” of sorts, if you can call it that, between the produced work, the creator of that work, and the audience. The art is that je ne sais quoi that stirs the conversation into being in the first place. It sometimes seems to me that most “art” is created these days by shock jock types or professionals with cookie cutter formulas. When I come across something different, I savor it. I like to look at the layers and find deeper meanings, invariably bringing forth hidden layers and meanings from within myself. This book pressed all the right buttons, but it didn’t do it by leaning on them all at once. It was played slowly, pressing some buttons singularly, others in combination, like a master at a well-tuned piano. The result was quite the sonata for me because it hit some personal chords. Any difficulty in this story is laid upon the characters to work through. For the readers, not so much. We’re simply invited along for the ride. At first glance, it might seem complex due to the air of art history in play, but the simplicity in the narrative is the key to its beauty. It was embarrassingly easy to lose myself in this story, seemingly for no reason other than to escape my own life for a time. But in the process of reading, it put my life in a different kind of focus that I sorely needed right now.
One of the paths not followed for me was the world of art, a world I equate to those of music and literature. In high school, I set aside my first love of music in order to study art, thinking it perhaps more lucrative as a profession. In college, I studied art history, fine art, commercial illustration, animation, and computer animation. None of those paths led to anything resembling a career, but despite a mountain of regrets, my love and respect for it has never waned. The arts have always offered a richness otherwise beyond my grasp or means. I often think about where those paths might have led. This book crosses through those paths as the lives of a 17th century artist, a collector, and a curator converge upon one another, highlighting aspects of the art world that few might ever consider. Some might complain when given these descriptions that they “can’t relate” to such characters or their world, which to me is one of the most shortsighted critiques imaginable. Some characters aren’t meant to be relatable, but they are all meant to be discoverable or understandable on some humanistic level, which is not the same thing. If it were, works like Frankenstein or The Age of Innocence would be beyond our grasp, and no one would be reading A Game of Thrones or its sequels. Fiction, like history, isn’t about relating to characters and worlds that aren’t our own. It’s about engaging with them and discovering what they offer that is beyond our own experience. If something relates to us personally, that’s certainly an extra layer that makes our connection more immediate due to familiarity. But even those aspects that are totally alien to what we know can enrich our own lives in ways we don’t expect if we allow it to happen. These stories presented in this novel are reminiscent of the kinds of shadows that might play through my mind on a visit to a local museum. Like the painting is so much more than what one sees upon the canvas, the story becomes so much more than what’s printed on the page. It’s the sort of experience that ensures a work will be savored during the encounter and linger well beyond the time spent with it for the right reasons.
My personal hope is that The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, and other novels like it, will help readers engage more with the world of fine art and its history. It’s not nearly as intimidating or pretentious as some might make it out to be. In some ways, this story helped me to reconnect with art as though reuniting with an old friend. Even if such connections aren’t made for other readers, it’s still a story worth reading, if for no other reason than simply because it’s told with a kind of honesty that is both stark and sensual at the same time, much like life itself. The best stories leave a ghost of sorts to haunt readers in one fashion or another. It’s part of that layered experience, the artistic conversation I mentioned. For me, this is one of those books.