Posted by Debbi Benedict on July 28, 2016
I started The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, written by Dominic Smith, FIVE different times over a three-week period! I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get into it at first. After I forced myself to move forward with it because I needed to write this blog, I ended up really liking it, but it took a chapter or two. I think it was because Mr. Smith started the story with, at least to my thinking, the least interesting character, Marty de Groot, and I just didn’t care about him. Consequently, the other two main characters, Ellie Shipley and Sara de Vos, I loved! Once he started talking about them, the story took off for me.
The cover of the book is what really drew me to reading it. It is so beautiful and reminded me of Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I have seen up close when it was exhibited at the Frick Museum in NYC a few years ago. It was painted at the same time and in approximately the same place as the painting in the book and has the same intense luminosity. So beautiful.
If you haven’t read the story yet, it centers around, of course, the last known work that Sara de Vos painted, At the Edge of a Wood. Though the character is fictional, she was inspired by the women painters of the Dutch Golden Age during the 1600s, who were members of the Guilds of St. Luke in Holland, which controlled all aspects of professional artistic life. Guild members included Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan van Goyen and females like Judith Leyster.
The painting was bought by a member of Marty de Groot’s family and stayed in his family for over 300 years, bringing cursed lives to each male member, with none living past the age of 60. It is stolen by someone (they never do say exactly by whom) and brought to Ellie Shipley to be forged. All things come to a head 40 years later when both the real and forged paintings arrive at the same museum to be exhibited.
Going back and forth between 1600s Netherlands, 1950s New York, and Australia in 2000, it does end up being a compelling story. I loved that the book started in November 1957, the month/year of my birth!
I learned so much about the painting life of Dutch artists in the 1600s. It makes me want to not only go to Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general, but to really study more about those artists. It is so weird, I remember many, many years ago when Good Morning America visited the Netherlands for a week and Joel Siegel did a tour of the Rijks Museum and I was mesmerized. I don’t know why I remember it so vividly, but I just thought it was SO enchanting.
The descriptions of mixing of the paint, etc., from not only the 1600s, but also of how they are replicated in forgeries, was very in-depth. I read some reviews that thought it was too much info, but I found it just right. Actually, the descriptions of each era were really well researched and made me feel like I really understood what it was like at that time.
As I am also a writer, I am captivated by how words are used and often make note of a particularly good description. A few I captured from this book were, ” ..the body was so much cabinetry for the vapors of the soul.” and “…he cannot remember a time in his life without the cushioned guard rails of abundance.” I also liked how Marty described himself as shrinking in old age and how his sports coat fit, “.. your shoulders like a rumor behind all that fabric.”
I thought the ending was very satisfying, and relatively happy for Marty and Ellie in each their own way. Of course I knew that before I started the book, as I have an odd habit of reading the last page or so before I start the book. A lot of the time I don’t understand it right then, but I just have to know how it ends before I can start it!
As you know if you have been reading my book reviews for a bit, I don’t delve into specific questions like those in reading guides because I just don’t know how we would do that, but I like to talk about how the book affected me and what caught my attention. I would LOVE for you to comment on what you thought of the book either on my Facebook page or comment below here on the blog. I know tons of people read my book review posts from looking at my stats, but very few comment. I started this particular series because I wanted to hear your thoughts, so please don’t hesitate to comment, even if it is a “I hated it”. or an “I loved it”.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. Did it move me? No, it didn’t, but it was an interesting read, which in the summer, is sometimes all you need.
The August book club pick is Bettyville, by George Hodgman. It’s a memoir about the author moving back to his hometown of Paris, Missouri to be the caretaker of his aging mother, who has never really accepted the fact that her son is gay. I saw a story about this on CBS Sunday Morning and I anticipate it being a delightful and meaningful read. I hope you join me towards the end of August for a discussion.