The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons
|The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: An exquisitely-constructed, evocative story which will hold you right through to the final pages. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: August 2013|
|External links: Author's website|
On her thirtieth birthday Juliet Montague went out to buy a fridge for the princely sum of twenty-one guineas. She'd saved hard for it - and her parents had given her the final few guineas - but then Juliet did something impulsive. Instead of buying a fridge she commissioned a portrait of herself and so began her involvement in the post-war art scene. Juliet wasn't - by any stretch of the imagination - an artist, but she had a startling ability to spot a good picture. It was simply something which she knew, much as she had known for certain that her husband had left for good on the day he didn't return home as expected.
Such things happened and still happen, but Juliet was part of a conservative Jewish community and she tried to live by their values, as much to appease her parents as from belief. The stark fact was that she was now an aguna, literally a chained woman, who was married, but without a husband and she would remain so until he died or until he gave her a divorce. The change is gradual but much as she dislikes making her parents unhappy (for the perceived sins of the children are visited on the parents), much as she wishes to protect her children, Juliet realises that she is not prepared to remain invisible.
I've had this book on my desk for quite a while as I was saving it for a treat and when the weather was too hot to do anything other than find the coolest spot in the garden, I indulged myself - and what a treat it was. I've little knowledge of the Jewish religion and probably less of the art world, but I knew I was in safe hands. With some authors you shy away from a subject of which you know little: with Natasha Solomons you know that you'll be escorted in, introduced to the concepts with affection and left feeling that you are happily part of a new world. Solomons had a family inspiration - her husband's grandmother was an aguna, but one who still achieved much in her life - and Rosie Solomons sings through the story.
Juliet Montague is a brilliant creation. I understood this woman who scrimped to buy a fridge - it's so what I would have done - but I felt a stab of pain when she wasted the money on a portrait of herself by an unknown artist. Ten pages into a book - and Solomons had created a character who was capable of causing me pain, who had engaged my sympathies and then squandered them. Then came that subtle change - the knowledge that self-sacrifice for the general benefit isn't always the right course and that what matters most is being true to yourself.
But Juliet is just one of many brilliant creations. I loved her younger child, Leonard, almost squeezed into a mould by his mother - despite the fact that she refused to suffer the same treatment herself - but who struck out to make his own way. Or there's Juliet's mother, Mrs Greene, loving her daughter but distraught at the treatment meted out to her because of her daughter's actions - and her father, frequently caught between mother and daughter. On the art scene, Juliet is drawn to Max Langford, reclusive former war artist whose war is still continuing in his mind. It's an elegant picture of a relationship, where the balance waivers and is difficult to define, but is still so right.
I sighed when I finished the book, not because I wanted more - it was perfect as it was - but I would have loved the reading to have gone on for much longer. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
As I thought about the story my mind occasionally drifted to another book - The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth. Both are written with the background of a religion and with the knowledge that the religion might not be perfect, but there's affection and respect. If I had to pick two books to take on a trip from those published this year these are the two that I'd choose - even having read them both. Why would I risk taking something which wouldn't give me as much pleasure?
You can read more book reviews or buy The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons at Amazon.com.
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