Book Review: Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at Exhibition Thank you to the author, Camilla Macpherson for sending this book to me! It came all the way from London! What a treat!

The start of every chapter of Pictures at an Exhibition comes with a QR-Code that you can scan and will take you directly to the painting from the National Gallery’s site and give you all the information about the painting and the artist. What a lovely touch! Alternatively, you can see each of the paintings on Camilla’s site here as well, which is how I viewed them. Her site is also so wonderfully designed around old letters and paintings. It’s really very nicely done. I love her “Contact” with the address written on an old letter with stamps and postmarks.

Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of Claire, and the affair that develops between her and a woman named Daisy, from reading Daisy’s war-time letters. These letters were originally written to Claire’s husband’s grandmother, Elizabeth. Daisy would write to Elizabeth at the start of each month detailing her life in London during WWII and of her monthly visits to the National Gallery. Each month the Gallery would hang one single picture and make it available to the public. Each month, Daisy would go to the Gallery, view the painting and write Elizabeth all about it, of her feelings about the painting and also about life in London, the city that Elizabeth has left when she wed her Canadian man.

Following Elizabeth’s passing, package containing these monthly letters arrives for her grandson, Rob. These letters arrive at a key turning point in Rob and Claire’s marriage. Just five months prior, Claire was expecting their first child, was quite along in her pregnancy when a terrible tragedy occurred, causing her to miscarry the child. Claire has named the baby Oliver and is overcome with grief at his loss. Utterly consumed with grief she cannot forgive her husband Rob, for he had made himself unavailable at this critical time for Claire. Indirectly, and perhaps directly, she blames Rob for the death of her unborn child and their marriage is crumbling from the weight of it.

Intrigued, Claire begins to read Daisy’s letters. They become the single source of happiness in Claire’s life. She takes it upon herself to read one letter each month and to go see the same painting at the National Gallery that Daisy has written to Elizabeth about. One day, Claire meets a dashing man at the Gallery, named Dominic, and quickly things begin to spiral out of control for Claire. She finds herself quite dependant upon Daisy, her growing affair with Dominic and the increasingy distance between her and Rob.

“‘I think I’ve let it mean too much, Rob. I’m sorry. I’ve thought of nothing else for months. It’s just that she was there for me, when I needed someone.’ It felt almost embarrassing, saying these things, admiting to what she felt for someone who had never really been there, whom she had never met, who had not even written the letters to her.”

However, as her life more and more begins to resemble Daisy’s, Claire also begins to realize her life is with Rob and forgiveness is long over-due. She slowly draws Rob back in to her life and shares the wonder and mystery about Daisy. Together they go to see the final paintings and work to uncover what happened to Daisy – did she survive the war? Did she marry her lover?

“Home now. Home to her husband and his familiar hands and arms and voice, home at last. Home for good.”

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, a lovely story all around. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Daisy’s letters alongside Claire, and while you may experience some fluster with Claire in the middle of the book with her crippling inability to move on, she does capture your heart and the story ends quite well. Thank you again to Camilla for sending it my way, much appreciated!

butterflyHere is one of the pieces of art that is written about in Pictures at an Exhibition. It is titled, “The Painter’s Daughter’s” by Gainsborough. (sorry, it is very small) You can however find out about it from the National Gallery’s archives here.

Book Review: The House Girl

house girlThe House Girl by Tara Conklin holds every hallmark to become a favoured historical fiction novel.  Family secrets, pre-Civil War American history, perserverance of the human spirit, alternating time perspectives…it’s all in there!

Many may know of my personal penchant for the historical fiction genre,  especially if it involves personal history in some way and definitely when it shows the perseverance of the human spirit or the willingness of those few that put their own lives in danger for others. The House Girl offers all of this and more.

Here’s what The House Girl has to offer (taken from Tara Conklin’s site): Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite Manhattan law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that can make her career: find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her about a controversy currently rocking the art world. Art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves from her plantation Bell Creek, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the firm’s lawsuit—if Lina can find one.  But nothing is known about Josephine’s fate following Lu Anne Bell’s death in 1852.  Did Josephine die at Bell Creek?  Was she sold? Or did she escape?  Searching for clues in old letters and plantation records, Lina begins to piece together Josephine’s story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before.

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and ask whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.

Josephine and Lina are two superb and inspirational women, but it wasn’t only them that drew me so deeply in to this story. No, because while I’m a sucker for personal historical fiction, I’m an even bigger devotee to ones that are written using letters as a way to tell the story. Oh how I adore those! And, The House Girl features much using this format, between sisters and in one part, and a letter from a father to his son in another. Through much of this book I couldn’t keep my eyes away from it, but when it came time to read the letters written by Dorthea Rounds to her sister Kate, I was enthralled. Dorthea has but a fleeting moment with Josephine, but it is her writing about her abolitionist work with her father that is truly fascinating. These letters describe the danger the Rounds involved themselves all in order to help the tortured and mistreated slaves seek freedom. Ms. Conklin has written complete fiction in these women and in this particular tale, but has done such an astounding job on making it seem as though we were reading about true historical figures. (Believe me, I was searching online!) Much like myself, Lina, while researching this “perfect plaintiff” becomes entranced in the correspondence written by Dorthea, and also develops this fierce bond with the history of a woman whom lived 150 years before.  The writing in these letters were like a gift and just added such richness to the tale.

Even when it flips back to the present day and we read of Lina and her personal and professional struggles, we are not left wanting for the quick return to Josephine’s tale, because Lina’s is just as engrossing! The House Girl is a thoroughly enjoyable tale! I know you will be seeing this book around quite often once it releases (mid-Februrary). It is definitely going to be sought after book-club read and is for certain a Literary Hoarders approved book!

Book Review: Anna From Away

Anna from Away is a book  you need to take your time with and savour the words in it. You need to slowly mull the words and thoughts over and become entranced in the sorrow of Anna and Murdock’s life (most especially Murdock). Also, the cold, spare and harsh landscape of Cape Breton seemingly force you to slow your reading as well. I found it was best read in front of a cozy, crackling fire.

It’s a novel of great sorrow and aching loss, but redemptive and new love and forgiveness as well.

Anna has fled California to the austere Cape to immerse and find herself in her art, following the confession from her husband that he is leaving her for a younger woman. Anna chooses Cape Breton based on a simple search and seeing pictures of the island. Alas, she has picked a bitter, cold, dark winter season to arrive and wonders when ever will spring arrive? Anna rents a house from a family that has long left the Cape, but also from this family with remaining members still inhabiting the island.

Red Murdock’s grandmother lived in the house at the end of his lane that Anna is now living in. Murdock is constantly aware of Anna’s presence and watches her wander and sketch on the beach.  However, Murdoch is struggling and is losing himself deeper and deeper and cannot overcome the sorrow and loss of his one true and great love Rosaire. Murdock is a man that so beautifully and achingly reflects on Rosaire, and with such pain and love, that I’m certain I fell in a love a little bit with him.

Could anyone describe the kind of absence he felt? It hollowed him out, a cavernous space, every day he teetered on the edge.

Tentatively, he begins to approach Anna, he is drawn to her. And Anna, as she struggles with the loneliness and heart ache over her husband’s betrayal, is slowly drawn to Murdoch.

All is not what it seems to be on the island however, and suspicious and violent activity begin to happen on and off. Anna comes upon a large bundle of pot which she hides in her rented house. When she experiences strange occurrences that she cannot brush aside, she enlists the help of Murdoch. Together they begin to slowly shed the darkness enveloping them, let go of their pasts and slowly open themselves up to each other.

When he’d last come upon Anna, suddenly around the turn of shore, he felt strongly the simple pleasure of her looks, complicated by an old desire, the thought of touching her. It had sneaked into him. Here, on this familiar beach, where everything had said Rosaire. He had let the feeling pass – it was not one he could keep, should keep. She was from away and would always be from away.

Anna from Away was a quiet and enjoyable read. MacDonald’s prose was quite lyrical at times and his shaping of the character of Murdoch was well worth the time spent reading. If you’re looking for a quiet, melancholy sort of read, stoke up a fire and settle in with Anna from Away, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Book Review: The Family Fang

Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art.

Their children called it mischief.

I called it disturbing.

I called it compulsively readable.

But mostly, disturbing. It’s like watching a train wreck. You can’t look away. And while I was so amazingly frustrated and down right pissed right off with Mr. and Mrs. Fang, I suppose that is the hallmark of Kevin Wilson’s “art” right? Seeing as it evoked that much emotion in me where I found myself wanting to shake the life out of these so-called”parents” constantly, it must mean that this book achieved what it set out to do. It definitely had me talking about it, going back to it every chance I got.

Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists where every moment in their lives is devoted to performing their “art”, their happenings, their events. This includes their two children, whom they only refer to as  A and  B.  Two sad and innocent children not allowed to live in, or be loved in a  conventional family setting, EVER. Instead used only as props for “events”, “happenings” – their parent’s “art”. (Children kill art, or is it that art kills children? a line somewhere in this book.)

As a result of these happenings, Annie and Buster are completely confused, instable and messed right up adults. They are unable to form healthy and normal relationships since they are “hardwired wrong”. The most psychologically damaged one is Buster as he is the more vunerable and sensitive child that is utterly unable to distinguish between reality and one of his parent’s “events”. Oh how my heart ached for Buster.

`They were enjoying the explanation of their grand design. They spoke with reverance about the way they had deformed the lives of those around them so their idea could take shape, be willed in to existence.

`You have never cared for us, for anyone but yourselves,`she began “You’ve done as much as you possibly could to wreck our lives. You made us do everything you wanted, and when we couldn’t do it anymore, you left us.”

“You left us,” Caleb said, the anger a heavy thing in his voice. “You two left us to pursue inferior forms of art. You disappointed us. You nearly ruined what we made. And now, we’ve made something better than anything we’ve done before and you two are not part of it.”

“We are a part of it,” said Buster “We’re your son and daughter.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.” Caleb said. (Chapter Thirteen)

Since it was so compusively readable, just downright disturbing too, I give it 3.5 stars. 4 stars? I don’t know, perhaps I need to think about it some more.