Somehow, SOMEHOW I missed a review. That’s never happened! I may get behind (ok, way behind), but this time I’m not just behind, I’ve completely skipped a book. Didn’t get it written down in my notes document or anything. SO! I’m pausing in my great catch-up project to rectify that because certainly Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos deserves a review.
I love novels about art, particularly women in art. Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemesia were two of my favorites growing up, and since then if you hand me a book with a strong female protagonist and a plot revolving around art, I will read it. So obviously, I was intrigued by Smith’s debut, and it did not disappoint.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos tells the story of the last known work of the titular character, a fictional female Dutch painter, at 3 points in time: in 1631 as Sara becomes the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke as a master painter, having found her voice as an artist after a devastating loss; 1950’s New York when Ellie, an Australian grad student and art restorer, agrees to create a forgery of Sara’s masterpiece, At the Edge of a Wood, and enters into an odd cat-and-mouse relationship with the current owner, unbeknownst to her; and in 2000’s Sydney, where Ellie, now a world-renowned art historian and curator, discovers that both Sara’s original painting and her own forgery are en-route to her museum for her upcoming exhibit on female Dutch painters. The story jumps about in time highlighting the moral quandaries each major character faces in response to the painting itself.
I’ll be honest that I don’t remember a lot about the writing style or structure or anything like that at this point. I read the book almost a year ago, and the specifics are fuzzy–this is why I try to write down notes after finishing each book. But what I remember are vivid images and moments from the book, feelings of incredibly distinct characters and places and times. Sara lives in a world of noise and chaos, where art is a trade, where people live outside as much as in, where life in 1630’s Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant and hard. The 1950’s Manhattan where the owner at the time lives lives is dark woods and shiny finishes, cocktails and tinkling glasses, muted sounds and muted emotions, that warm light emanating from one lamp at night, everything perfectly in its place, nothing too much or too felt. Sydney of the current day is all breathtaking vistas kept at bay behind carefully crafted picture windows, all cool tones–blues, grays, and whites, a gentle and quiet sophistication based on training and taste rather than money, again everything in its place but everything felt intently.
Smith creates these separate worlds and their inhabitants beautifully. You feel with Sara as she desperately tries to survive in a world where women are not valued beyond the home. Her frustrations and helplessness and fierce determination to succeed are all things we have felt. The wealthy businessman of the 1950’s could be creepy but instead Smith paints him as sympathetic. His choices, though odd, are understandable and never malicious. Ellie really comes into her own in the modern segments, and the tension between her burning anxiety and vibrancy held barely in check under her carefully composed exterior is compelling. Any one of the sections could be a novel on it’s own, but each feels right in the amount of time we spend in it. Ultimately, I kind of remember the novel as a painting itself, even if it wasn’t written that way.
I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure I had more specific things to say when I actually remembered the details, but this book stands up well to my memory. I hadn’t thought about it in months and then when I did, the images and moments came flashing back, almost as vividly as when I’d read them. I think The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a beautiful story about human needs and loves and what we’ll do for opportunity, and I’d definitely encourage you to check it out.