Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sarah Houghteling is a book written by a new voice, and is Houghteling’s debut novel. The jacket is what caught my attention, as it stated that the book deals with 1930s France, the artistic community, and also deals with art that was looted and stolen during WWII. It sounded like it would be a good read.
I began reading the book, and I found the beginning pages captured my interest. The story line was one of generations of one family, and mainly deals with issues of Max Berenzon and his father. Max, the narrator, is obsessed with art, and has been since he was a child in his father’s art gallery. He has memorized every painting his father owned, the placement in the gallery, and all the details within the painting. He lives and breathes the paintings and their artists. And, through him, the reader is able to visualize the paintings, as Houghteling brings them to life with vivid descriptions.
Max is passionate about the artwork, where his father is passionate about purchasing art and then selling it. Daniel has no interest in retaining it, other than one Edouard Manet painting entitled “Almonds”, which is meaningful to him. Max tries to impress and convince his father to leave him the business, so he can carry on the prestigious family name. His father has other ideas, and hires an assistant named Rose Clement. Rose becomes Max’s second obsession, and he lives his life in pursuit of her. He becomes self-absorbed, and possessed by Rose, and his decisiveness and journey leaves much to be desired. He lacks in maturity, and is childish in his interactions with others, and this reader wonders why he is depicted this way.
Max isn’t able to fully live up to his father’s expectations, or his own expectations of himself, for that matter. The first part of the book takes place between 1939-1940, within a surreal environment of wealth and riches, within the pre-World War II era, when those of wealth never dreamed of what would come. They lived in a world of fantasy, not cognizant of the political developments. They eventually had to scramble in order to try to save their lives, although there isn’t much detail about that development.
Fast forward to post World War II (literally, as the time period between pre-war and post war are swept over without mention), as part one of the novel is a skimpy few pages, part two of the novel encompasses 1939-1940, and the story line begins again in part three, on August 27, 1944. This is where I became disenchanted with Pictures at an Exhibition. The gap in time was an extreme disappointment to me. From that point forward, I felt the book was on a decline, and that the story went downhill, other than the historical factors.
Yes, there was historical interest, as far as the artistic elements are concerned, and, yes, I did enjoy reading those portions of Pictures at an Exhibition. Houghteling did her research on many aspects, and I can’t find fault with that. I did find some intrigue as to how Max tried to find his father’s paintings, and the extremes he went to to do so, but at the same time, the story primarily became flat, listless, and had no life to it.
Rose, Rose, Rose, he breathed her night and day. The paintings were almost second place…not quite, but almost. It was as if the author couldn’t make up her mind as to how to proceed, should it be a novel of intrigue, a romantic novel, a historical novel, or a dramatic novel? I questioned what Houghteling intended, and when I couldn’t come up with the answer, the book became less interesting. It was almost as if the post war portion of the book became abstract, like some of the paintings mentioned in the book.
I feel that Houghteling was strong in her depictions of the artists, their way of doing business, and their artwork. Her historical data was clear and well defined, including accurate statistics. But, I felt there was no definition and depth to Max or Daniel’s character, or Rose’s for that matter, either. Max’s mother lived in a musical world of her own, unaware of anything beyond her music. There was no strong cohesiveness to the story. It could have been a book of suspense and strength, and one that left the reader wanting to turn the pages to find out what would happen next. I didn’t find Pictures at an Exhibition to be that way.
I wanted to like this story, I truly did, or I wouldn’t have purchased the book. I am an avid fan of art, and visit art museums frequently. The paintings and other artwork were clearly defined with strong word-images. Houghteling’s depiction of Max’s is less than effectual in her demonstrations of the actions he takes (or doesn’t take), and his character, in my opinion, is never fully developed. We never see him mature, other than physically. Rose was the stronger of the characters, an independent woman, who knew what she wanted, she was confident and mature. The reader is made aware of that from the beginning, yet I still found something lacking in her depth, something I can’t put a handle on.
What the reader isn’t made aware of is the fact that the jacket description enhances the story line, and makes it appealing to the person who picks up the book to read the inside and back of the jacket. Individuals are still trying to recoup their lost artwork and lost furniture and other items, to this day, art and items that the Nazis stole and hid in caves, warehouses, and other areas. This could have been played up, I feel, in a more effective manner to give more mystery and interest to the book. I realize this is Sarah Houghteling’s debut novel, and realize that not every first novel is a fantastic one. But, for this reader, Pictures at an Exhibition isn’t a story that totally captured my interest. So it goes…
I have donated the book to my local library.