Book Event

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lost Art, Lost Lives

Well, I have to admit that the book I just finished reading, Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling, didn't go in the direction I thought it would. I assumed that it would be one of those "let's track down the stolen masterpiece" type of plot (which I love) but it didn't. It actually became something much more, instead of find lost artwork it was about someone finding his soul.

The novel takes place during the Second World War era and tells the story of Max Berenzon, a young man who is the son of a respected and successful art dealer. This tale is a sort of bildungsroman as Max starts off as an idealistic, impetuous and immature college student whose main concerns are to follow in the family business as an art dealer and to court his father's assistant, Rose Clement. It's pre-war Paris and though fear and uncertainty are in the air, Max has other things on his mind.

In the second half of the book, the war has ended and Max returns to Paris after having been in hiding in the French countryside and is again obsessed with art and women as he attempts to track down his family's missing artwork and to find out what happened with his beloved Rose. But as Max undertakes this journey, both his feelings regarding the stolen artwork and for Rose begin to change. Once he sees how many of his friends and associates haven't returned to Paris, he begins to understand the devastating toll on human lives that the war and the Holocaust have had, and the importance of finding the artwork fades. Max realizes there are more important things in life and his relationships with people become more meaningful as a result.

At the end of the book, the author informs us that several of the characters were historical figures, such as the character of Rose Clement and many of the art dealers. Rose was based on Rose Valland (former curator of Jeu de Paume) whose meticulous records of the looted artwork helped saved thousands of paintings for repatriation. Her communication with the Free French and the Allies also prevented railcars of artwork from getting bombed.

Along with the historical details and the development of Max's character, this novel has many other interesting aspects. In the beginning, the motives of some of the characters are inexplicable, such as the strong opposition Max's father has to Max becoming an art dealer, and also how Max seems more interested in finding the stolen artwork than finding out what happened to his missing friend, Bertrand. But as the story develops, their actions become more understandable. A very interesting and rewarding read.

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