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The Black Painting by Neil Olson
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The Black Painting

by Neil Olson

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An obscure Goya self-portrait is at the center of The Black Painting and the Morse family, who owns it. Or did until it was stolen after which time the family fractured amidst distrust and dysfuntion. Now with their grandfather dead under mysterious circumstances, cousins Teresa, James, Audrey, and Kenny are brought back together for the first time in a decade and things get complicated fast. Too complicated. I finished because it’s a mystery and I wanted to know whodunit, but got the sense that Olson decided the murderer at the last minute by throwing a dart at the list of characters. ( )
  cathgilmore | Mar 3, 2018 |
I’ve often enjoyed novels about art and art history So much can be hidden in works of art that they are the perfect topic to base a mystery on. I remember reading a few years ago, that art curators had discovered in a portrait a miniature self-portrait of the artist rendered as the reflection in the pupil of eye the subject painted century’s before. I digress, but this is an example of the fascinating things that make the art world the perfect setting for a novel.

Neil Olson apparently agrees as both of his novels to date center around works of art, in this case a supposed fifteenth painting created during Francisco Goya’s Black Painting phase, a self-portrait reputedly able to induce death or madness in those who view it. In this, Olson’s second noel, wealthy New England patriarch Arthur Morse has summoned his many offspring and descendants home to his estate to discuss…who knows? The first of his grandchildren arrive to find him dead on the floor, his face a mask of terror and his sightless eyes gazing fixedly at the spot where his prized possession, the aforementioned cursed Goya self-portrait, would have stood had it not been stolen several years ago under mysterious circumstances. As the rest of the family arrives, the reader begins to see that this odd assemblage is about as far from being a big happy family as one can imagine. Past events, including the disappearance of the painting have left them paranoid, suspicious, traumatized, and unable to trust each other. What is happening at Owl’s Point is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that a lot of ugly secrets will be uncovered before the whole story is revealed.

Olson writes with a sensitivity most often found in female authors, which allows him to focus on the inner angst and psychological torment of the Morse family’s many members, especially Teresa, art history student and youngest granddaughter, who suffered an unknown trauma during the original events and whose discovery of her grandfather’s body threatens to send her over the deep end again.

My impression of this book was that it focused too much on the dysfunctional Morse family and not enough on the mystery. Olson can definitely write but I’d like to see him tighten up his plot and focus more on the mystery that is ultimately what keeps the reader engaged.

*The review was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.

FYI: On a 5-point scale I assign stars based on my assessment of what the book needs in the way of improvements:
*5 Stars – Nothing at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
*4 Stars – It could stand for a few tweaks here and there but it’s pretty good as it is.
*3 Stars – A solid C grade. Some serious rewriting would be needed in order for this book to be considered great or memorable.
*2 Stars – This book needs a lot of work. A good start would be to change the plot, the character development, the writing style and the ending.
*1 Star – The only thing that would improve this book is a good bonfire. ( )
  Unkletom | Feb 19, 2018 |
What a great premise, right? Unfortunately, the actual story failed to live up to it.

The story itself had all the makings to be great. You have a painting that contains a demon in it, and this painting is stolen. The owner of the painting, Teresa's grandfather, is found dead with a look of horror on his face. And everyone in the family wants to find this painting because of its wealth - and because of the powers it is rumored to hold. The problem with the story, however, is the plot doesn't really stick to the script. It meanders and flows in so many different directions that it is hard to keep track. I don't care about any of the other side plots, I just want to know what is going on with this painting! It was so frustrating to read this novel because I never got the information or the story I wanted.

There were also a lot of characters. As in, way too many. There was nothing to really set any of them apart, and there was just so many names being dropped with no proper development that they all melded into one. It almost felt like I was experiencing whiplash, what with the sheer volume of characters and character interactions that were present in this novel. This is what happens when a story doesn't have any character development whatsoever - and it was an experience I do not want to ever repeat.

As I'm writing this review, I feel quite sad. This novel could have been so good. And I don't want to bash the author's efforts to write and publish a book. But there was no redeeming quality about this book. There was no effort made to keep the plot concise and interesting. There was absolutely no character development, leaving the reader swamped by the sheer number of players in this book. It was just not a good book. For those reasons, I'm giving this a 1/5 stars.

I received this novel as an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. ( )
  veeshee | Feb 19, 2018 |
The three children and four grandchildren of Alfred Morse, a wealthy art collector, have been called to his home on the Connecticut coast. Teresa, one of the grandchildren, finds him dead in his study; he has a horrified expression on his face which is turned towards the spot where a Goya self-portrait once hung. That painting, believed by several of the family members to be so disturbing that it caused misfortune or death, was stolen 15 years earlier. Teaming up with Dave Webster, a private investigator hired by one of her uncles, Teresa sets out to find out what caused her grandfather’s death and who stole the painting.

The book piqued my interest because of its use of one of Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. The twist added, however, stretched my credulity. I know that those paintings are dark and disturbing, but I find it difficult to believe that a self-portrait could be so horrific that it could cause death. People actually believe a painting can be cursed? There is also the added problem of a plot which lacks focus. There are a number of sub-plots so the narrative meanders. There are sex scenes that do not develop character or advance the plot; they seem included only for titillation. People like Marc, Teresa’s ex-boyfriend, are mentioned as if they might be important but then are never referred to again. Then there are statements like “She had been hearing Ramón’s voice in her head a lot for the last two days” even though there has been no prior mention of this preoccupation. There are also several fight scenes; at times it is difficult to know who is fighting whom. The feeling given is one of disjointedness; even the dialogue gives this impression. For instance, Dave mentions, “’You would have a hard time convincing [Pete] of [how lucky he is]’” and Teresa replies with “’I’ve been dreaming of my dad [Ramón] a lot lately.’”

Another major problem is characterization. The seven family members all remain flat characters so it is difficult to differentiate amongst them or to connect to them. There is an attempt at direct characterization (“Teresa was good at reading people”) but this description is inaccurate. The family as a whole can only be described as dysfunctional; everyone has issues with everyone else and no one trusts anyone. Not one of them is likeable. And because the characters are not developed, I found myself not caring about what happened to them.

The book is repetitive in its use of certain elements. People keep meeting in the woods and mysterious figures are constantly seen roaming there. Then there’s the spooky house and the mysterious housekeeper who knows a great deal but won’t talk. Teresa conveniently forgets and remembers things: “Who had said that? Where had Teresa just heard it?” and “then a vision pushed in upon her” and “How the hell could she have forgotten? Yet she had, completely, until now” and “Another vision intruded on Teresa’s mind.” Other characters also have strange memory lapses; one person cannot remember a cousin’s address: “’I slept on a bench. When I woke up I remembered the address, so I went there.’” Using memories in this way is not a sophisticated literary technique.

The long lists of questions also become tiresome. Teresa, in particular, thinks in long sequences of questions: “What had they forgotten, and what had their imaginations created over the years? And how would they ever know now which was which?” and “Had her mother known? What would she think, what would the aunts and uncles think? Would they be as indulgent as her cousins?” and “Who had her father really been, and what had he done that severed him from his family? What did her visions mean, or did they mean anything? Would she be the same person without them? Was she brave enough to find out?” and “What was he doing here? What had he learned, and why did he make Teresa so uneasy?” and “What was he doing now? Had Philip dismissed him or was he still on the case? If so, why had he not contacted Teresa?” and “Was it in Philip and Miranda, as well? And if so, how had she and James avoided it?” and “What was wrong with her? What was wrong with all of them? What was this demon in the blood of the entire family?” And this is not an exhaustive list!

This is not a book I can recommend. Plot, characterization and writing style all have issues. There are no thrills to be found in this thriller.

Note: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Jan 9, 2018 |
I've always been an easy mark for any book focusing on art theft and art history, so when I learned of The Black Painting, I had very high hopes. For the most part, those hopes were not realized. As much as the very first sentence tries to evoke Daphne du Maurier's superb Rebecca, it falls short. The entire cast reminded me of the motley crew of Gone Girl-- scarcely a one of them that I wanted to have anything to do with and none of them that I cared one tiny bit about. Self-absorption and greed ruled their lives. Yawn. Teresa is, by far, the best of the lot, but she's so ethereal she's like a bit of fog blown on and off screen. She's not enough of a presence to carry the narrative load.

Most of the time, this unlikable bunch of misfits prowled around the property like a pack of hyenas, their sole concern being the amount of money they inherit from their grandfather. The only time the book came to life was when Goya's fantastic Black Paintings became the focus. The first time I learned of their existence was when I took an art history class in college. Even as mere illustrations in a book, these paintings are so powerful that they've remained in my mind ever since. If only Olson's novel had one-tenth their power! ( )
  cathyskye | Jan 7, 2018 |
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An old-money East Coast family faces the suspicious death of its patriarch and the unsolved theft of a Goya painting rumored to be cursed. There are four cousins in the Morse family: perfect Kenny, the preppy West Coast lawyer; James, the shy but brilliant medical student; his seductive, hard-drinking sister Audrey; and Teresa, youngest and most fragile, haunted by the fear that she has inherited the madness that possessed her father. Their grandfather summons them to his mansion at Owl's Point. None of them have visited the family estate since they were children, when a prized painting disappeared: a self-portrait by Goya, rumored to cause madness or death upon viewing. Afterward, the family split apart amid the accusations and suspicions that followed its theft.… (more)

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