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

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This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

Summary from Goodreads:

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway. He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back? Maggie O’Farrell’s seventh novel is a dazzling, intimate epic about who we leave behind and who we become as we search for our place in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book, so hopefully writing this review will help me organise my thoughts. After reading the first two chapters of this book, I was intrigued by the story and decided to commit to finishing it, but I wasn’t totally hooked. By chapter four, I was quite enjoying the reading experience. At around page 200 I was engrossed in the story, but towards the end I found myself losing interest rapidly. Even now I don’t really know where I stand.

First, the good:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell is a quirky and engaging writer with a particular knack for creating complex, believable characters. She manages her large cast of characters effortlessly, moving between points of view, but returning regularly to the central couple, American linguist Daniel Sullivan and retired, reclusive French-English movie star Claudette Wells.
  2. Stylistically, the novel takes some audacious risks, most of which are pulled off very effectively. One section is given over to an illustrated auction catalogue of Claudette memorabilia purloined by a former personal assistant. O’Farrell inserts her own spoilers, telling us for instance that “in several years’ time Daniel will receive the news that his daughter has been killed in an accident”. Chapter headings skip around in an unpredictable fashion: “Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994”, for instance, or “Rosalind, Bolivia, 2015”. Lenny is the subject of the most fleeting cameo, and we do not actually meet Rosalind until page 418. While this might sound quite bizarre and confusing, I actually really enjoyed the chapters written in more experimental formats.
  3. O’Farrell writes with a wry sense of humour and ensures that the intricate and intimate details of dysfunctional families never get lost in the novel’s wide scope.
  4. I learnt a lot of new words reading this book. Note: I recommend reading this with a dictionary nearby.

Now for my criticisms:

  1. I thought the constant jumping between timelines was a bit too chaotic. Now I don’t mind stories that hop between past and present, and I don’t mind stories where each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (I thought this was done extremely well in Homegoing for example), but this – this was way too disjointed for my taste. There were just too many characters, too many timelines, and too many details to take in.
  2. The novel struggles to maintain its credibility at times.
  3. My biggest problem with this book is that I struggled to engage with the plot and the characters. While I can appreciate O’Farrell’s skill in exploring the nuances of human relationships and her eye for detail, I ultimately just didn’t care enough about the characters to remain interested for 496 pages.

While I do have my criticisms, I nonetheless thought that This Must Be The Place was a quirky, well-written book and I would definitely be interested in reading more of Maggie O’Farrell’s work in the future. Recommended.

Have you read This Must Be The Place? Or any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other novels? Do you have any recommendations? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Summary from Goodreads:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

I am stunned that this is a debut novel. Amazed. Wowed. Flabbergasted. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best debuts – actually, one of the best novels – that I have read all year and it is deserving of all the hype that it has been receiving. Wildly ambitious in premise and elegant in execution, Homegoing is my favourite kind of novel and reading it reminded me why I fell in love with books in the first place.

The novel is laid out as a collection of linked stories (think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad). Two sisters are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana; the first is married off to an English slave trader, the second is forced into slavery. Each subsequent chapter is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either sister, alternating through the generations all the way up to the present day. As the narrative unfolds, the characters’ lives also trace the evolution of the slave trade and its domino effect on future generations. This format allows Gyasi to construct a panoramic view of history by tackling multiple aspects of slavery, including Africa’s complicity within it.

At first, this constant shifting of perspective was a little jarring, but I soon grew to appreciate it. My only complaint is that I wanted to read even more about each of the individual characters. As for the prose itself, I found it to be dynamic, compelling and charged with a fierce emotional intensity. Despite the fact that Gyasi covers a period of 250 years in roughly 300 pages, I did not find the novel to be overstuffed, which is a pretty mean feat in my opinion. Like all novels about slavery, it is incredibly difficult and distressing to read at times, but there are moments of joy to be found as well. This is a book that demands to be read quickly, but remembered for a long time afterwards. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Summary from Goodreads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Ugh, this book made me cry like a little baby. What is up with me choosing really sad books at the moment? First Lincoln in the Bardo and now this! I think I definitely need something light and funny to read after the heartbreaking, ugly-cry-inducing, I-want-to-hug-my-mom kind of book that is A Monster Calls. 

It is a middle grade children’s book, yes. And if I had read it as a child, I probably would have loved it. It’s got monsters, nightmares, loveable characters, scary grandmothers, and thirteen-year-old bullies – you know, the whole shebang. Little me would have loved that. But it is not just a children’s book. A Monster Calls is a book that can be read and loved by all.

Well-written and compelling, this is a book about grief, loss, and love that will resonate with readers of all ages. While Conor does confront his demons more literally than most, there is nothing didactic or forced about this. The writing is intelligent and beautifully simple, the characters are well-developed, and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to hug little Conor. After the first chapter, I could already feel the tears coming and by the end of the book, well, they definitely spilled.

While this book is incredibly sad, more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love while reading this. Love for Conor and his family, love for my own family and friends, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. In just 215 pages, this book will break your heart and piece it back together again, so that you can go and be present in the world as a wiser, more loving human being.

Just a little note about the illustrations: 

While the words themselves are powerful, they are complemented perfectly by Jim Kay’s magnificent and wildly expressive illustrations. If you do decide to read this book (please do), I would highly recommend getting your hands on the illustrated edition. If you’d like to learn more about Jim Kay and his work, you can find his website here.

And another little one about the story: 

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, came up with the original idea and the characters, but died of breast cancer before she could put pen to paper. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Have you read A Monster Calls? What did you think of it? And most importantly, can you please recommend a book that won’t make me bawl my eyes out? 

~Anna

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Summary from Goodreads:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

Oh my goodness, I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in so long! It’s like a gothic soap opera, but in the best possible way. It’s dark, atmospheric, melodramatic, and oh so decadent. Honestly, I don’t know why I only discovered this now.

From the very first sentence, which is one of the most famous opening lines ever written, I was totally immersed in the story. I got lost in the descriptions of Manderley. I wanted to walk those paths through the woods to the beach. I wanted to wander the halls and peer into rooms, long abandoned after Rebecca’s death. I wanted to touch, taste, and smell everything our heroine was experiencing. I wanted to sit by the fire in the Manderley library, watching the rain stream down the windows, and read this book until the end of time. Yes, it’s that good.

The characters in this book, especially the female characters, were utterly fascinating. Mrs Danvers sent chills down my spine and for most of the book, I found myself totally terrified of her, but then she also had these moments of incredible fragility and sadness. But just when I found myself sympathising with her, she would go back to being a manipulative hag. What a brilliant character. As for Rebecca, I could almost feel her presence in the room while I was reading. I could almost hear her malicious laughter and picture her at her desk writing her letters in her elegant, cursive script. In contrast to our timid, nameless, and ultimately forgettable narrator, Rebecca is someone who demands to be remembered, long after her death.

The book is often compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever was. In fact, she seems more alive than our little heroine, who seems to exist only to serve and appease others. Rebecca infuses every room with the strength of her personality, while our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, afraid to touch or disturb anything. Personally, I love that she remains nameless throughout the novel as it shows the extent to which her identity is subsumed by her husband’s and makes Rebecca seem all the more present.

Now I know there are a few Maxim de Winter fans out there, but I have to admit that I am not one of them. The whole time I was reading this book, I just wanted to slap him for being so condescending, brooding, and peevish. Yes, Mrs de Winter is portrayed as a sexless, child-like creature with very little personality, but that doesn’t mean that she should be treated as the human equivalent of a doormat. I mean, she is his wife after all. He asked her to marry him, not the other way around. This man who is more than twice his wife’s age never once calls her by her name, asks her how she is feeling, or gives her the freedom to form her own opinions. What a jerk. Ugh. It’s no surprise really that Rebecca turned out the way she did.

Overall, I cannot express how much I loved this book. In my opinion, it is the perfect book to read on a rainy day, while covered in blankets and sipping a hot cup of tea. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend adding it to your TBR. I just wish I had discovered it sooner.

Have you read Rebecca? Did you love it as much as I did? I would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂 

~Anna

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Goodreads:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Magnificent. As a big Adichie fan, I had pretty high expectations for this novel and thankfully it did not disappoint. Smart, funny, thought-provoking, moving – the list of adjectives I could use to describe this book is endless.

About halfway through the book, there is this scene where Ifemelu is at a posh dinner party in America and one of the guests makes the comment: “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy”. Well, Americanah is one of those books that is neither precious nor pretentious. And it is very much about race. And it is honest and well-written and wonderful.

Yes, this book is a love story (and a great one at that), but it is also so much more than that. It is about race, social inequality, immigration, self-acceptance, loss of cultural identity, and change. It’s full of memorable characters, hilarious and brutally honest commentary on cultural differences, and very detailed instructions on how to care for naturally kinky hair. At 477 pages, it is quite a chunky volume that does drag a little at times (I guess it is a bit Proustian in some ways), but it is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Americanah? Or any of Adichie’s other books? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna