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on February 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of the Berenzon family, as told through the eyes of son Max. Max's father Daniel is one of the premiere art dealers in Paris. He sells the works of their next-door neighbor, Pablo Picasso, and has an exclusive contract with Henri Matisse. Works by Sisley, Degas, Lautrec, Manet, and too many others to name pass through the Berenzon Gallery. They are a wealthy and respected family. And while they're not religious in the least, like many of the art dealers of the time, they are Jewish.

Max was raised surrounded by great works of art. Every evening, his father would drill him on memorizing each work from exhibitions of the past. Max has always assumed that he would one day inherit the gallery. However, when Max is a teenager, Daniel informs him that he can't "with good conscience" pass the gallery down to him. Daniel doesn't believe Max has the right abilities and temperament to fill the role. It would be an understatement to say that Max has some "daddy issues."

So, as the story gets going in 1939, nineteen-year-old Max is studying to be a doctor. His father has just taken on the latest in a series of apprentices. Max typically resents these interlopers, but Rose Clément is different. She is beautiful, independent, awe-inspiring. It is love at first sight. It's not long before a relationship of sorts begins between Max and Rose. But no matter how many ways Max shows his love for her, Rose clings to her independence. Their romance, the business of the gallery, and everything else are put on hold with the outbreak of the war.

Rose is working furiously with the staff at the Louvre to safeguard the artworks. Daniel puts 250 of his most valuable paintings in the vault at the Chase Bank. More are hidden in a secret basement room in the gallery. Max and his parents flee the city and hide in the countryside. They stay away from Paris for several years, and we don't see them again until their return in 1944. Someone else is living in their house. The gallery is a wreck, and all the artwork has been found and stolen. Likewise, the art that was in Chase Bank is gone. Despite the fact that both Max and Daniel were born in France, they have been stripped of their citizenship. They have few rights, and almost no recourse for the injustices that have befallen their family. Their wealth is gone. Everything they had is gone.

Daniel decides to cut his losses and return to his wife in the country. Max, perhaps in an attempt to finally win his father's respect, stays in a wholly changed Paris to seek out their artwork through channels of varying legitimacy. It is Max's quest to find Rose, the art, and most of all himself that encompass the latter two thirds of the novel. It shouldn't come as a shock to any reader that it's a sad and difficult story.

I had a really conflicted response to this novel. In part, I'm sure, it was because of my own Jewish heritage. I'm no more religious than the characters in this book, but seriously, has anyone ever written a novel where the Jews lived happily ever after? It just gets depressing after a while. So, it would be accurate to say I had an emotional response to the book.

Intellectually, I loved every bit of this novel that was about the art. Whether it was ruminations on the works themselves, gossip about the artists, or details of how the French protected their treasures, I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Houghteling did a great job of providing an insiders view of a fascinating time in the art world.

I had a more difficult time relating to the main characters. At one point, Max says to Rose, "I couldn't understand you less." Bravo, Max, I thought. I shared his sentiment. But the truth is, I had a difficult time with Max, too. I don't think they were badly-drawn or unrealistic characters, just people that I had little in common with or understanding of. It made it a bit difficult to care that much about them or root for their romance.

There's an interesting author's note at the end of this novel. I was truly surprised by how much of the book came straight from the historical research. That went a ways towards explaining why parts of the novel were bogged down in details. All and all, even thought I wasn't fully invested in the character's stories, I was interested in learning about the time and place in which they lived. I'd recommend Pictures at an Exhibition for readers interested in art, history, or Jewish literature.
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on February 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Sara Houghteling successfully recreates the Paris art world of World War II in "Pictures at an Exhibition." As seen through the eyes and perceptions of Max Berenzon, the son of a successful gallery owner, it is a grim, gray world. The story seems to work on two levels: the Berenzon family, their lack of emotional communication, their family secrets, and the role of art in their lives - and then the larger picture - Paris under the Occupation and the fate of its Jews. It is the second aspect that is the most compelling.

Max's personal story is so understated, so emotionless, that it was difficult for this reader to be too involved. Briefly, Max is a son unsure of his father's love; he is pursuing a medical degree when he'd rather work in his father's gallery; he is in love with his father's assistant and possible mistress Rose; he is unfocused and seems to careen blindly through life. Then, Paris is occupied by the Germans and the Jewish Berenzons go into hiding. Those war years aren't the focus of the story, so it picks up again when the Berenzon pere and fil return to find the gallery an empty shell and their paintings gone. Max's search for the missing works gives the reader a view of just how difficult it was for those whose possessions had been `liberated' to reclaim them. But it is the depiction of postwar Paris that is more compelling.

Far more interesting than Max's story is the recounting of the art works themselves: the lengths the French went to protect these valuable possessions and the greed that flouishes even today as the descendants of the rightful owners are unable to claim their possessions. The recounting of the secret transport of 'The Wreck of the Medusa' and the 'Victory of Samothrace' were, for me, the highpoints of the novel.

The strong points of `Pictures at an Exhibition' are the author's prose style and the fascinating story of the `missing' art works. However, the human side of the story is far less riveting.
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on February 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was incredibly, and pleasantly, surprised at how well-crafted a novel 'Pictures at an Exhibition' was. The novel takes place on the eve of World War II, in Paris, just as the skies are beginning to darken. Houghteling's writing is dreamy and seems grounded in reality by the essence of its writing, and not the essence of its characters. The protagonist, Max, narrates the events of the story, but is never quite involved in the larger picture: he avoids the draft due to flat feet, and while marginalized by his art-dealing father, stills manages to come into his own. However, the events of his own life begin to mirror the events of Paris, though on a much smaller scale. My favorite paragraph of the novel occurs when Max recounts the dissolution of his romance with Rose, an apprentice at the art gallery: "A sweater I had left in her room was returned, neatly folded outside my door, along with my spare bicycle lock. It stunned me that these stupid, mute objects outlasted love. No square of yellow illuminated the courtyard. The bathwater scalded, I cracked my Cole Porter record in two, and France declared war" (p64).

My first instinct, and perhaps painfully grandiose in scope, was to see Max as a sort-of Hans Castorp character: a regular individual, tinged with affluence and pervasive mediocrity (which, one may recall, Mann attributes Castorp's mediocrity to underlying greatness in 'The Magic Mountain'). Max becomes a player - intimately known to the reader - in a scenario and situation that dwarfs his existence. Though he never literally heeds the 'call to arms' as Castorp did, he instead undergoes as much a journey of purpose and exploration through the novel. Max's humanity is effervescent and clear, he is an idealistic Romantic but also occasionally indecisive. He is believable, if an improbable, individual to be telling his story.

The writing is truly lyrical and beautiful, and (intended or not) conveys a sense of detachment from reality; as if the characters are encapsulated outside the realm of reality. Though there is romantic intimacy, there seems to be little in the way of emotional and intellectual intimacy between any of the characters; relationships develop, but there is an air of independence to each person's problems.
Houghteling's style is airy, and occasionally too flowery for comfortable reading. There are occasional situations where Houghteling seems more concerned with flaunting her artistic and critical knowledge about painters (using the characters as mouthpieces), and her choices of art can be a difficult fit. However, she so successfully taps into the role of art in creating and destroying relationships, establishing individual purpose, &c, that it is entirely forgivable.

Very, very well done.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"Pictures at an Exhibition Pictures at an Exhibition" is Sara Houghteling's debut novel. Set in France just before, during and after World War II, the plot follows Max Berenzon as he attempts to recover his family's lost art work, which was looted by the Nazis.

No plot spoilers from me. This story was well researched, both in the art and war history, but some how failed to reach it's full potential. There are several sub-plots running through the book that never get fully explored, at least as deeply as I would have liked.

This book will likely be appreciated more by fans of historical fiction and, perhaps art lovers, but it really didn't draw me in.
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on August 6, 2011
The writer seemed to have a disconnect with the characters, the scenes and the movement of the story. She might have known what she was thinking - but didn't convey her thoughts to the reader. I found myself constantly trying to link the characters and their actions - but couldn't. It was rather like being in a maze with no map. Thankfully it ended at some point and the Author's Note explained a whole lot that the book didn't. I would suggest reading the Note before starting the book.
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on July 1, 2009
I can understand Houghtelling being compelled to write a work of fiction using this slice of history as a backdrop. But of course it is too compelling a story to be merely a backdrop and soon the story of Rose and the hiding of French masterpieces and the massive theft by the Nazis becomes the reason to read this book. Rose is a marvelous character, perhaps because she is based on the real Rose Valland (surname Clement here) who did indeed catalogue the comings and goings of Jewish owned art objects right under the noses of the Germans, as a worker at the Louvre. Rose is tarted up a bit here as the love object of Max, whose story this is.

And Max is the problem. He tells us the story so we are obliged to follow him throughout and a more insipid, clueless procrastinator would be hard to find. He longs for Rose, for the love of his father, for a career in art which his father insists he is vastly unsuited for. Three quarters of the way through the book a family secret is revealed which is meant to be a reason for his sad schlep through life but it's hard to care since we didn't have any foreshadowing of a mysterious secret and can't figure out why this would have made his life directionless. When Max is - out of the blue - beaten up on a Paris street and robbed of every centime he has, (a small fortune which he has no reason to be carrying on his person), my reaction was: of course!

But the true story, the one worth reading, can be found in "Rape of Europa" by Lynn Nicolas which the author quotes liberally in her acknowledgements. It's a great read and a testament to the real heros, of which Rose Valland was but one.
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on March 19, 2014
With the years before and immediately after WE II as time frame, this is a fictionalized account of the horrific loss of the world's great art masterpieces. It is also the story of a sons loss. Lovers of Monuments Men will adore this story.
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on August 2, 2013
This book was difficult for me to read. Nazi Paris is always hard to grasp, but the relationships in this book are extremely hard to comprehend. It's one of those books without a classic hero, so I had a hard time finding someone to root for. At the same time, I was fascinated by what was happening in the art world at that time. I had not realized that so many Paris art dealers were Jewish or what that would mean. Worth slogging through.
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on March 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The book has a lovely cover, and the font was a comfortable size. I was really looking forward to reading this since I'm interested both in art, as well as pre and post WWII life. While this author seems to have made an effort, this reader, unfortunately, is compelled to report that the book simply did not engage.
I love the masterpieces that currently dwell in art museums around this country, as well as around the world. I was hoping to discover exactly what happened to those masterpieces taken, in France, during and post WWII. This book, too often, did not deliver on this subject. Yes, there was an attempt here, but for this reader, it just did not resonate.
Additionally, I'm often drawn to novels dealing with characters of this era. I'm interested in their day-to-day lives both prior to WWII and after this horrible war. Unfortunately, this book disappoints here, as well. This reader was seeking depth, and didn't find this here.
The author's prose is bothersome [clumsy?]. I found her sentence structure annoying, I like a consistently crisp, as well as lyrical prose, and didn't find this here. Reading this was like wading through a dense fog. The flow of her plot was disrupted due to fog.
I get it! I got it! Benezit [I guess that this is an 'in joke'] was a friend's name in medical school. Benezit is a French Anthology of world painters -- both major and minor. Benezit often tells gallery owners how to price minor paintings.
Sorry to report that I was extremely disappointed,
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on July 22, 2014
“A thriller, a travelogue, and a mystery,” said the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about this 2009 novel, the story of Max Berenzon, son of a successful Parisian art dealer who, in the 1930s, falls in love with a woman, Rose Clément (the real-life Rose Valland), assisting in his father’s gallery. The three share an encyclopedic knowledge of the artists and artworks then in museums and galleries and private hands.
As Jews, the Berenzons must hide in the countryside during the war, returning to a ravaged city, their hidden artworks looted, the gallery burned, and little chance of recovery. Those familiar with The Monuments Men will appreciate this perspective on the story. (In the movie, Rose is played by Cate Blanchett and called Claire Simone). Houghteling weaves a good story that keeps the pages flying, and writes with vivid style: “That same winter, I was in Le Puy, where the stark, bare tree branches were like Chinese calligraphy against the sky.” Lovely.
Berenzon’s father advises him to give up searching for the family’s lost artworks, advising they will not be recovered for subsequent generations. And, indeed, regular news reports tell of the “discovery” and return of looted works, where that is possible, is the ongoing purpose of The Monuments Men Foundation. Says Houghteling in a postscript: “The locations of some 40,000 art objects remain unknown. They are in public and private collections and, many believe, in the former Soviet Union, plundered a second time by Stalin’s Trophy Brigades.”
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