The Gallery of Vanished Husbands
Obsession can be a powerful thing. It can help us do great deeds or it can be the cessation of greatness. An obsessed character can be a fantastic, multifaceted personage or a cardboard cutout with only one side painted in. In the case of this novel the author manages to land her obsessed character somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, failing to bring her fully to life but not quite having her be completely flat either.
For her thirtieth birthday Juliet Montague plans to buy a refrigerator. It might not be what the romantic, frivolous girl she once was would have dreamed of but for the practical single mom Juliet has become a fridge sounds like heaven. At least it does until she is distracted by a sidewalk artist. Within moments of viewing his work she is prepared to part with her dream of a fridge for one of his paintings. Charlie Fussel makes her a bargain – he’ll take her money but he wants to paint a portrait of her rather than sell her any of the work he has on display.
Unbeknownst to the artist, this more than anything will fill a hole in Juliet’s soul. Several years ago, on another birthday, her husband had disappeared taking Juliet’s most prized possession with him: The portrait of her as a young girl painted by David Milne. Juliet feels she is recapturing a lost piece of herself when she is able to hang the new portrait in place of the old.
This transaction would have ended the relationship had Juliet’s young son not been teased about his lack of a father. Determined to prove his dad is still living and can’t join his family rather than simply not wanting to, the boy treks off to find him. The child’s short quest leads him to Charlie. When Charlie returns the lad to his home he offers Juliet a unique proposition: The two should start a gallery together. She will manage the property and critique the art work, he will introduce her to a dizzying array of other artists.
For Juliet the chance to stop working her dead end clerical job and surround herself with art is a godsend. It will also give her a chance to spend time outside of her conservative neighborhood where she is neither wife nor widow. She has been unable to divorce her husband under the Jewish law of her community since their interpretation states that only the husband can initiate divorce. However, having no clue where he is and no way to sever the relationship has left her in a very odd position vis-à-vis her family and friends. Moving into the free spirited world of the liberal art scene will be a welcome break from the silent pity and judgment she feels in her own society.
It is while she is choosing the art for the opening of the gallery that she first encounters the work of Max Langford. He is reclusive, unwilling to come to London to have his work shown but “somehow, without intending it, Max had caught her in the hairs of his brush and she was stuck as firmly as a fly in a bead of drying paint.” Determined to have both the artist and his paintings at her gallery opening Juliet heads to Dorset, fixed on bringing him back with her. Yet Max is nothing like she expected, friendly and private, casual and posh he stirs in her yearnings for something beyond just his work. For the first time in years she feels that there can be a love for her, unconventional and free spirited as she herself longs to be.
One of the wonderful things about this novel is how it examines relationships – mother to daughter, mother to son, grown daughter to mother, wife to husband, woman to lover, unrequited lover – the list could go on and on and on. I liked the looks we got at what might have been if a character had fallen in love with the right person or what life might have been like if they had just taken the good advice given. I also appreciated how two people could see the relationship differently – most especially between Juliet and her husband. I appreciated the way the author would use a character’s relationship to reveal something about them to the readers that they never understand about themselves. For example, Juliet essentially tracked down her first husband in the same manner she did Max. She likes being the pursuer, not the pursued but I don’t think that is a lesson she ever learns about herself.
Equally well done is the writing. The author includes simple phrases that encapsulate exactly what is happening or point us toward precisely what we should see. The clarity of her prose was especially delightful (and helpful) in a novel dedicated to visual art.
I really appreciated how the author handles the subject of the missing husband. There are no neat or tidy solutions, no rapid answers. We get to see the effects of his leaving played out in the lives of Juliet and her small family. The reader’s frustration during the hunt for closure makes a wonderful counterpoint to the characters’ own inability to grasp a quick or succinct solution to the puzzle.
1960s London is vividly drawn here in all her glory. That was fun to explore and I especially appreciated the author’s use of a small, conservative Jewish community contrasted against the bohemian art scene of the day. Some of the middle ground is captured as well, giving us a nice full view of a great city at an exciting time in history.
But the book had some flaws. I found Juliet rather grating at times and I thought there were several mistakes made in the descriptions on the creation of art. Juliet’s obsession with that subject also blocked us from seeing her fully as a character – who was she when the walls were blank and she wasn’t looking for the next great painting? I also wish the author would have told us more about what she actually had to do to get the gallery running on a day to day basis.
But those are just quibbles. This novel captured and held my interest almost from page one. While there were some irritants they didn’t spoil my ultimate enjoyment of the story. If you are a fan of women’s fiction I would recommend giving this one a look.