The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Book Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. Macmillan 2016. 304 pages. (Kindle edition reviewed)

Dominic Smith has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks a novelist can take on — He has maintained the continuity of a story that flashes back and forth in time over more than three hundred years, from New York of the 1970s to Holland of the 1630s, and then to Sydney at the turn of this century.cover-the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-mon-10-17-16

This outstanding novel tells the story of a painting and its creator, “At the Edge of a Wood,” painted by Sara de Vos in 1636 as a memorial to her daughter Kathrijn, who died at seven of the plague.

By the time you reach the last page, the painting will be an old friend, like one you visit often at the museum or, if you’re Martijn de Groot, an insecure New York lawyer who is the lucky third-generation owner of a golden-age apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum. The painting hangs above the marital bed, to be regarded “while he made slow, contemplative love to his melancholic wife….”

You will know from the beginning that there is no such painting, that neither Sara de Vos nor Marty de Groot existed (although Sara de Vos is based on the first women allowed to become members of the Dutch painters’ guild, a clannish and tight-knit group with arcane rules and rituals. Both will seem as tangible as your neighbor.

The other main character is Eleanor Shipley, known as Ellie, who is equally real. We meet her as a student and struggling young art restorer who lives in an undesirable corner of Brooklyn. Her tiny apartment, “Set above a Laundromat, has its own weather: a tropical monsoon during business hours and a cooler, drier climate at night.” It is so unkempt that she has allowed no to stranger visit (Marty will be the first). She shops at the store where “period conservators and forgers alike” go for their materials, such as the odoriferous rabbit skin she cooks into glue on her own stove, wondering if the travelers on the Gowanus Expressway look through her window and think she’s stirring porridge instead of melting animal hide.

The mention of forgers is the magic door to the entire story. In brief, impoverished Ellie is hired by a shady dealer to forge a copy of “At the Edge of a Wood,” which is then exchanged for Marty’s original.

The book imagines a turbulent life for Sara de Vos. Her daughter dies of plague; her husband first hides their financial distress then goes bankrupt and abandons her, rather than go to debtors’ prison. Dutch society of the seventeenth century is not kind to women in that situation. They inherit their husbands’ debt, although Sara is lucky. Her husband’s main debtor wants her to work off the debt by painting, which raises the question: Was “At the Edge of a Wood” her last? You decide.

There’s a long section about the odd and manipulative relationship between Marty and Ellie after he learns she’s the forger. An important part of the plot is the atonement both of them owe. Do they deliver?

In an oblique way, it reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, although I had a hard time figuring out which was the Briony figure.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a novel so much, and longer since I’ve learned so much dominic-smith-mon-10-17-16from one. Dominic Smith, an Australian who now lives in Austin, must have done an immense amount of research in preparation, and it shows, but he escaped the pitfall of making the book sound academic and instead created his own art.

Highly recommended. ★ ★ ★ ★ 

(This review has also been posted on Amazon. I learned of the book from an Amazon marketing email and purchased the Kindle edition.)

Pictures from Dominic Smith’s web site

Book page on Amazon

If you’d like to receive my blog posts and occasional newsletters by email, please subscribe by leaving your email address below:

The miniature Statues of Liberty in Paris

Everyone who’s taken a Bateau Mouche ride on the Seine has seen the copy of the Statue of Liberty installed on the Isle des Cygnes, near the Grenelle Bridge. While it is a miniature of the real statue, it’s no tiny thing. It’s 40 feet tall. For landlubbers, there are (at least) two other good copies of Lady Liberty to … Continue reading

Books: Joie de Vivre – an American living the Paris life

Forty-plus years of living in Paris, first as a student then as the wife of a well-known banker and historian, have given Harriet Welty Rochefort the ability to look at both sides of the French-American cultural divide with a sharp analysis that’s both trenchant and humorous. She’s published three books that I think of as cultural dictionaries. In them, she … Continue reading

A Red Ribbon award for Last Stop: Paris

Thanks to the people at the Wishing Shelf Awards for awarding Last Stop: Paris its “Red Ribbon Award” and “highly recommended” rating. Wishing Shelf is a British organization that manages an annual contest for indie-published books. Its judgments are crowd-sourced — that is, the books are distributed to a group of readers whose scores all go into the final judgment. Wishing Shelf posted the … Continue reading

Watch an Intoxicating Vision of Paris

I use the Feedly app to bring in blog posts and RSS feeds from altogether too many sites, but one I always appreciate is Slate.com. Tonight, Feedly brought in an extraordinary, atmospheric Paris video. This one is exceptional – three minutes of Paris that, and I can testify to this, is spot on. At one time or another I’ve seen every … Continue reading

Shaping the finale of Last Stop: Paris

TWO YEARS AGO, when I had hardly started the writing of Last Stop: Paris, I was casting about for a good location to set the climactic, resolving scene. I needed a crowded urban site (not hard to find in Paris) where I could set a car chase that ended in the Seine. At the time I wasn’t sure that’s how … Continue reading

[Books] “Young Once,” by Patrick Modiano, “Marcel Proust for our time”

When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014 he was virtually unknown outside France. He is a prolific author, with 30 books published in French, but very few had been translated into English. Yale University press promptly picked up several of them for American publication, and now Amazon teems with Modiano offerings. The Kindle edition I … Continue reading

Author interview on BookGoodies

BookGoodies, a well-known site for promoting books, was nice enough to do an interview with me this week. For your general edification, you can find it here. Here’s one of the questions they asked — how I write. (If you’re not up on the lingo, a “pantser” is someone who creates the plot as he goes. Nobody is 100% pantser … Continue reading

Is it the same size, or what?

Optical illusions have long been a key part of the magician’s toolkit. Here’s a really good illustration of how and why they work. BBC Academy trainer Mark Blanc-Settle hit the Twitter jackpot with a tweet on the “Jastrow Illusion” — the mistaken impression (embedded in magic tricks since time immemorial) that two objects that APPEAR to be of different sizes … Continue reading

Review copies of Last Stop: Paris are still available

UPDATE FRIDAY AFTERNOON: Two copies are left. I found a few remaining paperback review copies of Last Stop: Paris, which I’ll make available to anyone who would like to read it and post a review on Amazon. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can click the cover image in the sidebar to see the first 10%. The book is … Continue reading