A sweeping story of art, grief and redemption.
In 1631, Sara de Vos becomes the first female painter to be admitted to the Guild of St Luke’s in Holland, before tragedy befalls her family.
By 1958, little is known of her life and only one of her paintings, At the Edge of a Wood, survives. It’s been passed down through generations of the DeGroot family and travelled with them to New York, where it’s surreptitiously replaced by a masterful forgery. Upon discovery of the theft, the painting’s current owner, Marty DeGroot, sets out to find the forger, who is not at all as he expected: an intense Australian art history postgrad in her mid-twenties named Ellie.
By 2000, Ellie has become a leading expert in her field and the world authority on the work of Sara de Vos. However, while curating a Sydney exhibition of Dutch masters, the crime of her youth threatens to resurface and she finds her career in jeopardy when both the original and her forgery of At the Edge of a Wood, along with a newly discovered de Vos, arrive for the exhibition.
Spanning three countries and more than three centuries, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (Allen & Unwin, May 2016) is a sweeping story of art, grief and redemption.
All last year, I kept hearing wonderful things about this novel but didn’t find a chance to read it, thanks to an ever-expanding TBR pile (so many good books, so little time, right?). But then my mama-in-law lent me her copy over the Christmas break, and I bumped it to the top of my reading pile. I’m so glad I did! It’s such a meaty, immersive read, and Smith has a rich and evocative prose style that’s wholly compelling (it reminded me a little of Geraldine Brooks). Thinking back on the story, there were a few key elements that didn’t quite work for me, but they were a matter of personal opinion, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book overall.
I’ve often seen The Last painting of Sara de Vos likened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013), and this was a big part of why I wanted to read it. But the similarities are superficial. Sure, both deal with the subject of art theft, specifically of a Dutch master, and a substantial portion of each book takes place in New York. Grief is also a theme in both. But that’s where the similarities end. Tartt’s novel is a colossal whirlwind of youthful energy, a coming-of-age story concerned with obsession, desire, art and beauty. It’s Dickensian in scope, whimsical and ambitious in style and gives a nod and a wink towards Tartt’s (Bennington) Brat Pack roots. Indeed, despite winning a Pulitzer, several notable critics snubbed the book for reading too much like a children’s story, which led to a fierce discussion about ‘high’ and ‘low’ art (which Tartt probably loved), sexism in literature (which Tartt probably found ironic given some of the anti-feminist criticisms leveled at The Secret History back in the day) and Jennifer Weiner coining the term ‘goldfinching’. Her article on the subject in The Guardian is a fascinating read. By contrast, Smith’s novel is subdued and intimate. A nuanced meditation on grief, remorse, love and atonement.
I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, though I’m not sure you’re supposed to. Marty is this rich New Yorker who comes from generations of money. He has everything and takes it all for granted. He treats women as lesser beings, which I suppose is in keeping with the period, but even still, he’s insufferably patronising. That said, he’s not entirely unsympathetic—he and his wife lose two unborn children, and then almost their marriage as a result—but I didn’t feel he earned his redemption. Ellie is more sympathetic, although, of all the characters, she’s perhaps the least fleshed out. In the New York chapters, in particular, she feels more like Marty’s fantasy girl than a real person, and honestly, I’m so over the ‘smart, focused girl who’s awkward, dresses badly and is completely oblivious to her beauty and affect on men’ trope. I would have liked Smith to linger a little longer on why Ellie agrees to paint the forgery. She makes the decision very quickly. Later it becomes clear that she’s out to prove a point, but this isn’t wholly established at the time. Sara is easily the most likeable of the three. She works hard only to lose her daughter before her husband abandons her, leaving her with his debts. Because of her husband, she loses her house and her place in the painter’s guild, making it difficult for her to work and support herself. She’s not at all self-pitying, which is admirable, but I didn’t really feel that we got to know her, as a person, and she’s burdened with so much misfortune, I felt that Smith was laying it on a little thick in places.
I also found the ending a tad twee and overly neat, not quite in keeping with the book’s overall tone.
That said, I probably wouldn’t have found fault with the characters or the ending had the rest of the book not been so considered and detailed. It was a delight to watch Smith plaiting his three plots and working up the parallels and points of connection between them. For the artist, the collector and the forger, de Vos’s At the Edge of a Wood is both a burden and comfort, haunting in each in a slightly different way, and linking them through time. They are connected in other ways too: Sara and Marty both suffer the loss of their children and see their marriages deeply affected as a result. Sara and Ellie both struggle for recognition in a male-dominated field. And Marty and Ellie both feel alienated from their surroundings, not fully committed to the lives they’re living. More than that, all three are incredibly lonely, have suffered great loss and seek human comfort and connection.
I’m not generally a huge fan of historical fiction, but Smith so clearly evokes each time and place, without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail, that I found The Last painting of Sara de Vos wholly absorbing, and enjoyed the novel’s tender, meditative tone.
Thanks to Grammarly for picking up five critical issues and twelve advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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