Julia Glass Reviews Pictures at an Exhibition
Julia Glass is the author of Three Junes, which won the National Book Award in 2002, The Whole World Over, and I See You Everywhere, published in 2008. Learn more about Julia Glass in the Julia Glass Store, and read her guest review of Sara Houghteling's Pictures at an Exhibition:
I read a lot of debut fiction, in part because editors often seek my endorsement for these books, but also because one of my greatest pleasures as a reader is the discovery of a fresh voice. Sarah Houghteling’s voice is fresh indeed, yet it is also remarkably mature. Pictures at an Exhibition is at once an authoritative historical novel, a family saga, a labyrinthine love story, and a sumptuous meditation on the purpose and value of material beauty when war threatens the very fiber of civilization.
In constructing her true-to-life story about Jewish art collectors before and after World War II, Houghteling made a clever and sophisticated choice. Through the eyes of her narrator, Max Berenzon--an impetuous young man who yearns to fill the shoes of his elegant father, not just an art dealer but a patron to the likes of Picasso and Matisse--she begins by showing us high-society Paris of 1939, a place of such prosperity and worldliness that those who occupy it can hardly believe it will be vulnerable to the palpable winds of political change. Yet as we readers know from our 21st-century perch, this world will soon and swiftly fall apart. (Those who savor irony will think of our own society a year ago now.) And then, in a bold fictional move, Houghteling bypasses the events of the war itself, vaulting us forward to the time of reckoning: for Max, for his father, and for the shell-shocked survivors of a divided France--among them Rose, a talented art connoisseur who attracts yet mystifies Max. In order to help safeguard her country’s artistic legacy, did she collaborate with the Nazis?
Max’s twin obsessions with repossessing his father’s plundered art collection and understanding this elusive woman provide the momentum for a story that is suspenseful, moving, illuminating, and ultimately satisfying. It solves a captivating mystery while showing us yet again how our lives, regardless of our private fortunes, will bend to the forces of history.--Julia Glass
(Photo © Peter Ross)
From Publishers Weekly
A young French-Jewish man obsesses about taking over his fathers fine art dealership before WWII, and tries to locate its lost canvases in the wars aftermath in Houghtelings ambitious and satisfying debut novel. Halfhearted medical student Max Berenzon tries to impress upon his father, Daniel, that he should inherit the business, and spends the rest of his energy wooing Rose, the gallery assistant. But the war soon makes talk of the future a moot point, and the Berenzons survive the war in a cellar in the south of France. When father and son return to Paris, their gallery is empty, looted by the Nazis. In dirty postwar Paris, Max chases both the missing art and Rose, and though both his targets remain elusive and the gaping hole left by the roundup of French Jews is impossible to close, Max does shed light on his own familys secret tragedy. Houghteling dazzlingly recreates the horrors of war, and its the small, smart details—a painting that was a sentimental family treasure turning up years later in an ordinary gallery; an offhanded anti-Semitic remark in a cafe—that make one uncommon familys suffering all the more powerful. (Jan.)
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