Our “Book Nook” feature writer Abby Pinard brings us a couple of new items to consider…
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
Dominic Smith, 2016
What a delight! This is a historical suspense novel with redeeming literary value – character driven, intricately plotted but without contrivance, and elegantly written. With pivotal events taking place in New York in 1958, we are seamlessly brought forward to Sydney, Australia in 2000, and back to 17th-century Amsterdam and the Dutch Golden Age that produced Rembrandt and Vermeer.
The painting at the center of the novel hangs over the bed in the New York penthouse of an attorney whose family has owned it for 300 years. When it is stolen and replaced by a meticulous forgery, the attorney isn’t sure he even wants the original back but determines nevertheless to track down the forger. The graduate student who had agreed to copy the painting goes on to become a prominent art historian and authority on the artist – one of the very few women among the Dutch masters – but is haunted by her past.
The evocation of art and painterly technique is fascinating; the portrayal of people driven to actions they will regret for a lifetime is moving without being melodramatic; and the writing is precise and restrained yet compelling, with quotable passages on every page. Here’s just one that I had to read more than once: “…unmarried women make good academics because they’ve been neutered by too much knowledge and bookish pleasure. The world hands them a tiny domain it never cared about to begin with.” Hmm.
Art, deceit, loss…this is a fine novel disguised as a page-turner.
Thanks to Linda Dietrich for insisting that I read this book!
The Little Red Chairs
Edna O’Brien, 2016
On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
A stranger comes to town… The town is Cloonoila, a rural Irish backwater, and the stranger, soon known as Dr. Vlad, announces himself as a healer and sex therapist. He is exotic and alluring and is viewed with suspicion by the village priest, but the children and especially the women gradually fall under his spell, most notably Fidelma, the town beauty trapped in a cold marriage and longing for a child.
Edna O’Brien doesn’t string us along with tantalizing clues to the stranger’s identity. The epigraph quoted above signals the truth: Dr. Vlad is a notorious Bosnian war criminal responsible for the torture and genocide of Muslims and Croats. He is modeled on Radovan Karadzic, who hid for thirteen years before being arrested in Belgrade. Dr. Vlad has appeared in western Ireland as if by magic.
It has been fifty years since O’Brien’s fiction debut, The Country Girls, scandalized the country with its searing portrayal of the social and sexual mores of rural Ireland. In The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, she is casting a wider net, tackling broad questions about evil, complicity, and penance. Her prose is beautiful and brutal as she shatters the gentle, almost mystical aura of Cloonoila with a scene of horrific violence, Fidelma’s abasement, and her search for redemption among the lost and broken. Powerful and haunting.
Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.
Comments are most welcome–just jot your thoughts in the box below!