Title: Pictures at an Exhibition
Author: Sara Houghteling
Release Date: February 17, 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
Set in a Paris darkened by World War II, Sara Houghteling’s sweeping and sensuous debut novel tells the story of a son’s quest to recover his family’s lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.
Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends medical school, reserving his true passion for his father’s beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant, Rose Clément. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding. They return in 1944 to find that their priceless collection has vanished: gone are the Matisses, the Picassos, and a singular Manet of mysterious importance. Madly driven to recover his father’s paintings, Max navigates a torn city of corrupt art dealers, black marketers, Résistants, and collaborators. His quest will reveal the tragic disappearance of his closest friend, the heroism of his lost love, and the truth behind a devastating family secret.
Written with tense drama and a historian’s eye for detail, Houghteling’s novel draws on the real-life stories of France’s preeminent art-dealing familes and the forgotten biography of the only French woman to work as a double agent inside the Nazis’ looted art stronghold. Pictures at an Exhibition conjures the vanished collections, the lives of the artists and their dealers, the exquisite romance, and the shattering loss of a singular era. It is a work of astonishing ambition and beauty from an immensely gifted new novelist.
I thought the premise of Pictures at an Exhibition sounded very interesting, but the mixed reviews made me hesitant. I decided to go ahead and give the book a try, and I’m glad I did. Though it has some flaws, Pictures at an Exhibition is a promising debut from a new author.
This novel is will definitely appeal to anyone who has a real interest in art. Houghteling’s love and appreciation for the masters of art really shows. She describes paintings with passion and grace; it it obvious she feels very strongly about the paintings and sketches described in Pictures at an Exhibition. It is interesting, getting to know art on an intimate level, almost as if the art itself were a character in the novel.
Though the premise of the search for looted art is very interesting, it doesn’t quite pan out in the novel. Pictures at an Exhibition isn’t actually about art; it’s about one man’s search for his past and coming to terms with that past. The search for art is just the vehicle through which the main character, Max, learns about himself and his family. He comes to terms with what has happened to the Jewish people under Vichy France, though never exploring this subject in detail. The fact is, every storyline in the book is very much on the surface except for Max’s personal journey.
This can be very disappointing for a reader if you are expecting an book about the search for stolen art, or about the plight of French Jews after World War II. The fact is, Pictures at an Exhibition is a slow read. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but the pace of the book is more plodding than it should be, given the subject matter. The book gets bogged down in those details that Sara Houghteling obviously loves in places.
I have to say, my favorite part of the book was the Afterword. Houghteling takes the time to explain her sources and shows that most of the book comes from actual historical documentation. I found this fascinating, and wished all the more that the recovery of looted art had been more of a focus for the book.
Sara Houghteling is a very talented writer. Though Pictures at an Exhibition has its flaws, it’s a solid debut novel. I hope we’ll be hearing more from Houghteling soon!