Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I was intrigued by the description of this book when I first read about it in Bookmarks magazine. I chose it for a read for our February book club and it was met with a somewhat lukewarm reception - that is until people read it. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was one of the best books that I have read in the last few years. It has a bit of everything one could want in a book - history, mystery, art, and some interesting relationships. Taking place on 3 continents and in 3 eras of history, the novel weaves its tale through the painting, "At the Edge of a Wood." Smith gives the reader a detailed description of the painting before the narrative begins and he relates the story of Sara and her family. Barent, her husband is a painter in 17th century Holland. They have a young daughter and live what seems to be a bucolic life. And then, suddenly Kathrijn, their daughter dies of the plague and their world is turned upside down. 

Fast forward to 1957 and the apartment of Rachel and Marty DeGroot, a wealthy couple hosting a charity dinner after which Marty discovers that the painting "At the Edge of a Wood" that has hung above their bed has been replaced by a meticulously crafted forgery.  The forger is a young graduate student, Ellie Shipley,  whose specialty is women painters of the Dutch Golden age. DeGroot becomes obsessed with finding the original painting that has been in his family for 350 years and eventually he becomes acquainted with Ellie. As the story builds to a climax, after another 40 years, the original and forgery are side by side in an Australian art gallery where Ellie has held a prominent position. 

Concurrently, the reader learns of the hardships of Sara and her quest to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke, the painters union in Holland. She is a strong woman and has had to overcome the hardship of both personal and monetary loss. Her story parallels the struggle of Ellie and so many women who were never really given the credit for their talents or intellect. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is an incredibly fulfilling read. It is full of twists and turns, wonderful character development, and themes. Smith deftly handles time and place from 1631 to 2000, from Holland to New York City, and Australian as he focuses on a painter, an art enthusiast, and a forger. This is not to be missed if a reader yearns to read a book that he or she does not want to end.