The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke’s in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain–a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

I read this book (over a month ago, ugh) when I was feeling really sick and it made me feel so much better about everything. While my art knowledge is practically non-existent, I still found it to be highly enjoyable and think that it is a great book to read if you’re feeling a little green around the gills. Or even if you’re not.

This book is basically a checklist of literary whoopee: it’s set in the art world, it features jazz clubs, a Mad Men-style Manhattan couple of the 1950s, a woman painter in the 1630s, some behind the scenes action at the New South Wales art gallery, and a long-kept secret from someone’s youth. Throw in the possibility of an affair, a young woman procrastinating at her dissertation on a Remington, and the tragedy of lost children, and you have all the key ingredients for high-level intrigue.

As for the writing itself, I found it to be elegant and eloquent. There is nothing groundbreakingly innovative about it, but I wasn’t really in the mood for groundbreakingly innovative writing when I read this book. I just wanted a good, well-written, immersive story. And that’s exactly what I got.

The characters are all very compelling and well-constructed. As is always the case with parallel storylines, I enjoyed some narratives more than others. I particularly enjoyed the parts about Ellie’s misadventures in New York as a struggling grad student, although I found the scenes written from Sara de Vos’ perspective to be a little boring at times. On a side note, I was impressed by how well Smith managed to write female characters. None of the women in this book were caricatural and I actually thought that Dominic Smith was a woman until I googled him. Oops.

Overall, I thought that this was a lovely book and I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. I found it to be a quietly compelling page-turner about art, regret, loss, and finding meaning within the constraints of one’s circumstances. Recommended.

Have you read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? What did you think of it? Do you have any recommendations for good books set in the art world? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Our Magic Hour – Jennifer Down

Summary from Goodreads:

Audrey, Katy and Adam have been friends since high school-a decade of sneaky cigarettes, drunken misadventures on Melbourne backstreets, heart-to-hearts, in-jokes. But now Katy has gone. And without her, Audrey is thrown off balance: everything she thought she knew, everything she believed was true, is bent out of shape. Audrey’s family-her neurotic mother, her wayward teenage brother, her uptight suburban sister-are likely to fall apart. Her boyfriend, Nick, tries to hold their relationship together. And Audrey, caught in the middle, needs to find a reason to keep going when everything around her suddenly seems wrong.

Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever.

Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is a gorgeous Australian debut – raw, affecting, and occasionally heartbreaking. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but I read it in one sitting and I still find myself thinking about it.

The story develops out of a triangular relationship between three childhood friends now in their mid-twenties – Audrey, Katy and Adam – and grows in scope to include Audrey’s relationships with her boyfriend, Nick, and her family. Tragedy strikes within the first few pages and the novel traces the different ways that people process their grief. Plot, in a traditional sense, takes a back seat, allowing Down to explore the complexity of these relationships with empathy and nuance, never shying away from her characters’ ugliness or shortcomings. The characters in this book felt so incredibly real to me and they seemed to almost jump off the page.

While the characters are wonderfully constructed, my favourite thing about this book is Down’s depiction of place. The story is set both in Melbourne and Sydney, and these cities almost feel like characters in their own right. Maybe it’s because I have lived in both of these Australian cities, but I think that Down perfectly captures the atmosphere of both of these places and they felt so familiar to me when I was reading this book.

Overall, I thought this was an extraordinary debut and I’m really looking forward to reading more of Down’s work in the future. I think that she is incredibly talented and I believe that this book deserves a lot more attention than it is currently receiving. It made me smile, it made me sob, and it made me love and appreciate Melbourne so much more. Highly recommended.

Have you read Our Magic Hour? What did you think of it? Would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna