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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel by…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel (2016)

by Dominic Smith

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4313424,472 (4.02)49

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Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
This is an exceptionally well written novel, the three time zones coming and going without any jarring and I found myself always enjoying returning to whichever one came next. Managing the structure of his novel so well made it possible for Smith to offer what for me was the major part, the characterisation and what this says about people, so effectively – and convincingly, each character with their flaws or griefs or both.

So often with historical novels, the reader feels as if the author is going to give you excessive details of the period whether you like it or not so that you’ll be impressed by how much research they’ve done. In this book, though, in the Sara de Vos seventeenth century Dutch parts, there’s no sense of this research, the allusions to the period coming from incidental detail rather than the novelist’s desire to imbue the scene with period bits and pieces.

Instead all the book’s drive and intensity comes from the characterisation of Marty, Sara and Ellie, all of whom we feel we get to understand well. I was left feeling Smith had some ageing relative the way he was so able to convey what it must be like to be in one’s eighties. ‘You no longer attend the opera, because the human bladder can only endure so much. Social engagements require strategy and hearing-aid calibrations. Every sports coat you own is too big because you continue to shrink, your shoulders like a rumour behind all that fabric.’ What evocative wording! And earlier he has Marty think of old age as ‘talking unabashedly to the nightly news’. And more wording, this time when he remembers a word he had been searching for – ‘it drops into the mind-slot with a satisfying clink’.

So, while there’s a lot about painting and forgery, there’s also a lot that engages with the reader’s experiences. What has left me wondering, though, is his choice of words when setting the story in seventeenth century Holland. For the most part it reads, to me, like the rest of the book – i.e. in our contemporary English which seems an effective choice to me as Smith does a lot to link Sara and Ellie. Once or twice, though, he uses very modern words such as when Sara is thinking of portraits done to commemorate dead children or husbands resurrected in these paintings. Here we find ‘the children plucked from the afterlife to sit neatly at the kitchen table arranged with apples and copper pans. Or the husband ported back to the living, a hand on his paunch . . .’. This word ‘ported’ is the one that struck me as I read this bit. ‘Port’ as a noun dates back to before this era but the verb seems to me to be ultra-modern in usage, reminding me of computers or space travel. Smith could easily have used the fuller ‘transported’ so I’m wondering why he chose this word. Maybe it was because it makes the whole transition from dead to living seems like something you might get in a séance or maybe he’s deliberately making Sara more modern in order to draw the parallels between her and Ellie.

Ultimately I’m still not sure what Smith wants the reader to take thematically from this book. Is it that creativity only rises from stress, Sara’s three paintings being done at turning-points while Marty regrets being born into wealth which has led to him achieving very little and leaving him thinking of ‘the man he might have become, the trumpeter with a big buttery tone that never waivers’. In fact there are many ideas in this books, suggested by such things as the references to the Russian space-dog – Laika – which Marty thinks burned up in re-entry or was poisoned though in fact we now know she starved to death. I wonder if Smith, writing this from an earlier perspective, knew what really happened but that’s by the by. And there’s that sense of everlasting regret for something you've done, a feeling both Marty and Sara have . . . I’ll certainly be rereading this book in a year or two.

I’m not sure now whether to read more of Smith’s books as it’s hard not to think that they could well be a let-down after this masterpiece. ( )
1 vote evening | May 6, 2017 |
An enjoyable story across three time periods - each of them interesting. I loved how it ended. ( )
  tandah | May 2, 2017 |
The eponymous artist was the first female member of the Dutch artist guild in the 17th century. The novel tells the story of the painting through three time periods. The first begins in Amsterdam 1637 after Sara, who has recently lost her daughter, has been suspended from the guild for selling paintings outside of the guild's purview.

The novel's second period is NYC 1957. The painting, which has been in Marty de Groot's family for 300 years, has been stolen replaced with a faked copy. During the investigation of the theft, the married Marty becomes enamored with a 20 years his junior, Ellie Shipley, art historian, restorer and forger.

The third time period is Sydney 2000 when Marty and Ellie are reacquainted after she receives the painting (and the forgery) for a museum expedition.

I'm not sure whether or not it the cold I had when I first began reading this book but I had a difficult time getting into it. For almost half the book, I toyed putting it down unfinished. However, it became engaging as I read the interweaving stories and I was glad I stuck with it. ( )
  John_Warner | Apr 13, 2017 |
Well written and engrossing, this novel follows a painting done in the 17th century by a Dutch woman artist through time, theft and imitation. ( )
  pennykaplan | Mar 15, 2017 |
A great read. I loved how the different stories linked together, a bit slow to get going initially but very enjoyable. ( )
  Elizabeth-Gadd | Mar 10, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
"Smith’s book absorbs you from the start."
"Apart from the story’s firm historical grounding, the narrative has a supple omniscience that glides, Möbius-like, among the centuries without a snag."
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For Tamara Smith, M.P. - beloved sister, loyal friend, trailblazer
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The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374106681, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 30 Jul 2015 16:26:46 -0400)

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