Tuesday, December 08, 2015

What we're reading: Fiction about art

Brief synopsis: A small painting by the artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (in fact, his first significant work in terms of style) is languishing on a dusty high shelf in a junk shop. The painting is purchased on impulse by a young woman, Annie, who intends it as a birthday gift for a man she recently started dating; but when he stands her up after she cooks him a sumptuous birthday dinner, she keeps it for herself. Coincidentally (!), this woman is hired as a chef to the family of one of the most powerful art dealers in London (or, in fact, in the world), and unbeknownst to her, the painting she is unceremoniously toting around wrapped in a plastic bag in her bicycle basket guards a great secret about this man's family that he will do anything to protect.

A Pierrot, by Watteau
I love books about art, and painting, and history, and the fact that this one also had a focus on cooking and food and London made it doubly appealing to me, so I grabbed it right up when I saw it on the New Books shelf. But there were a lot of ways in which I felt let down.

I wish, first of all, that I had not read the jacket copy, which lures you with statements that, while not false, are not exactly true either. This jacket started out, "Wickedly funny, this totally engaging, richly observed first novel by Hannah Rothschild is a tour de force." Now, usually you put the book's assets in the first sentence of its description, but…wickedly funny? Not unless I am completely missing the finer points of satire here. There is satire, there is irony, but it seemed more observational (and a tiny bit mean-spirited) to me, and not particularly amusing, let alone wickedly funny. The book is engaging, but only in specific parts, while in other parts it bores on until you want to ask the author, What is the significance of larding your book with such intimate detail about these people who are not at all central to the story and could, in fact, be completely excluded without any effect whatsoever? (I guess that was the "richly observed" part.)

I loved the story line about the supposed protagonist, Annie, the hapless aspiring chef who happens upon the tiny Watteau painting in a junk shop and then is intrigued enough by it to start looking into its history. The puppy dog of an admirer, Jesse the landscape painter, is lovable and sympathetic, the drunken mother less so, but she is a real character (as opposed to some of the caricatures of the art world depicted here). Equally engaging are the stories of Nazi Germany and the hidden and circuitous route the painting takes through centuries of diverse ownership.

The one thing that many reviewers seem to love is that the painting itself is cast as one of the narrators, giving its opinion about its history, ownership, and provenance, along with commentary about other paintings, the art world, and so on. While it was a good vehicle to get some information into the story that wouldn't otherwise be known by a single narrator, I found it rather precious and wish the author had found another way to convey this info.

Character studies by Watteau
I did learn a lot about Watteau and about provenance, and a little about cooking. And I may have learned something about the ridiculous people who turn themselves into art aficionados by virtue of having too much cash at their disposal and not many ways to spend it...but I'm not sure about this last, because this is where all the satire comes in, so who knows whether any of that is true and to what extent? I guess I'll just have to win the lottery and go buy some art from an important auction house to find out. I would fancy a nice Van Gogh to hang above my fireplace...

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