Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Book Review: THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Title: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
Author: Dominic Smith
Read: January 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can't shake them, even long after the reading's done. In his earlier, award-winning novels, Dominic Smith demonstrated a gift for coaxing the past to life. Now, in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, he deftly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke's in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain--a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she's curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

My thoughts:

It's always interesting to pick up a book that has received such mixed reviews. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was recommended to me by a friend, who gave it a solid 5 stars and rated it the best book she had read in 2016. I was instantly intrigued. The subject matter is certainly interesting: art forgery, a love story and a back-story with historical content - I thought I would be in for a great reading journey! Maybe my expectations were too high, because for me, The Last Painting was a mixed bag. There were elements I really enjoyed, like Dominic Smith's prose, which is beautiful and flows in gentle undulations, conjuring vivid images of the landscape, people and time. What a difficult task, to capture the essence of paintings with mere words and convey their emotional content to the reader in descriptions of colours and texture only the mind can see! It is a credit to the author that I could visualise Sara's paintings vividly in my mind. I loved the chapters dealing with Sara's life, which explored a chapter in history that I knew very little about. Her character was well drawn, and I was finding myself constantly waiting for Sara's voice to return and to learn more about her. There were so many unanswered questions I was hoping would be explained at some stage, but this didn't happen.

It took me a lot longer to warm to the characters of Ellie and Marty, and just when I thought they had captured my imagination, the timeline changed and I found the minutiae of their lives a bit - let's be totally honest - boring. Both appeared to me as such passionless, unemotional characters, at odds with the painting that has affected and shaped their lives. Even their romance, if you could call it that, is totally lacking in passion or anything that may have made them a bit more appealing. To be frank, I didn't like either of them. Ellie's student days, and the emotions that led her to paint a forgery, opened up such a good opportunity to explore her emotional turmoil, but this never eventuated. To me, she remained a flat and rather insipid character. What a shame! The technical details behind the paintings were fascinating, but not quite enough to hold my interest in a story where I could not forge an emotional bond with any of the characters.

To be fair, I must make it clear that I am reviewing the audio version of the book, which contained one of the most irritating narrations I have ever come across. Firstly, two of the main protagonists are women, and yet the book is narrated by a male, which made no sense to me at all. But worst of all was the fake "Australian" accent used to narrate Ellie's voice, which sounded like a mixture of South-African, New Zealand and the narrator's natural American accent. It irritated me so profoundly that it stole any reading pleasure I may have gained from Ellie's voice in the printed version. In summary, The Last Painting dragged on for me, and I was somewhat relieved when it finished, and left wondering what I had missed. Therefore, I can only cast 3 stars out there into the bright sky of 5-star reviews and glowing accolades to a novel that I found, at best, okay. Smith can certainly write, there is no doubt, but as a whole, the novel was not really my cup of tea.

Image result for 3 stars

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