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Pictures at an Exhibitionby Sara Houghteling
Synopses & Reviews
Set in a Paris darkened by World War II, Sara Houghteling's sweeping and sensuous debut novel tells the story of a son's quest to recover his family's lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.
Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends medical school, reserving his true passion for his father's beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant, Rose Clément. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding. They return in 1944 to find that their priceless collection has vanished: gone are the Matisses, the Picassos, and a singular Manet of mysterious importance. Madly driven to recover his father's paintings, Max navigates a torn city of corrupt art dealers, black marketers, Résistants, and collaborators. His quest will reveal the tragic disappearance of his closest friend, the heroism of his lost love, and the truth behind a devastating family secret.
Written with tense drama and a historian's eye for detail, Houghteling's novel draws on the real-life stories of France's preeminent art-dealing families and the forgotten biography of the only French woman to work as a double agent inside the Nazis' looted art stronghold. Pictures at an Exhibition conjures the vanished collections, the lives of the artists and their dealers, the exquisite romance, and the shattering loss of a singular era. It is a work of astonishing ambition and beauty from an immensely gifted new novelist.
When the Nazis invaded France and began gutting Jewish-owned galleries, a modest curator named Rose Valland seemed eager to help. She impressed the Germans with her knowledge of the local art market and the meticulous notes she took on the looted Rembrandts and Vermeers as they arrived at the Jeu de Paume on their way east to Hitler. To German eyes, she was a Parisian fantasy: pretty, discreet, cultured.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Now and then, the Nazis would become suspicious and dismiss her. She could always charm her way back. Or so it seemed. Valland was a double agent who took such copious notes on stolen paintings that they could later be tracked down and restored to their rightful owners. She passed information to the Resistance on shipments of art so that either the pieces would stay bottled up in Parisian train stations or, when they were shipped east, Allied bombers would spare the trains. If it sounds like a movie, it was: "The Train" (1964) with Suzanne Flon in the role of Valland, who lived until 1980 as a much-admired heroine of the Resistance. In her first novel, Sara Houghteling builds a love story around Valland's mission to save art, but the story works better than the character. Houghteling's depiction of the famous curator, renamed Rose Clement, is oddly denatured and sketchy, a figure who spins at the center of every melodrama and contrived coincidence in wartime Paris but never takes off as a full-blooded character. She smells like honeysuckle, she walks along the Seine, and she "is part of a new breed, the hungry, independent, middle-class, educated elite," one of the characters says, sounding like a sociology textbook. As depicted by Houghteling, Rose is an attractive frame around a bland work of art — which, as one of the characters explains, is a common trick to disguise an inferior painting. Turning a historical figure into a fictional character is not easy to pull off, and this book points to the perils of trying. That is a shame because most of the completely fictional characters succeed, particularly Max Berenzon, the son of a prosperous Jewish art dealer, Rose's lover, and the book's first-person narrator. After liberation, Max takes to wandering the galleries of Paris in a mostly futile search for paintings that belonged to his family, trying to reconstruct his prewar relationship with the elusive Rose. In one nicely executed scene, he enters a curio shop to inquire about looted art, but the one-eyed proprietor misreads his intentions and instead shows him photographs of naked children. Wincing, Max shuffles through them until he finds, underneath, a drawing by Manet that could only have been stolen from a collector. Manet is mixed in with kiddie porn. France has won, but the French are defeated. Houghteling also deftly evokes the desperation and confusion of post-liberation Paris, as deranged Holocaust survivors straggle back into town and once-prosperous Jewish burghers emerge from four years of hiding in attics and farmhouses to find themselves reduced to a life of bread lines and bed-sits. Houghteling's characters represent variations on the fate of Jews in mid-century Europe. Max's father, secular and assimilationist, at first denies the Nazi threat, becomes a refugee and returns to Paris a broken man who has given up not just on art but also on the value of all material possessions, advising his son to do the same: "Throw Death off your scent, Max. Give it all away. And when it is taken from you, say it is God's will." His mother is a high-strung Polish immigrant and pianist who plays the Mussorgsky suite of the book's title and, Cassandra-like, warns the family of doom as the Germans swallow up her homeland. Max stumbles upon his own past through a friendship with a pedantic Hasid who survived Auschwitz. They meet through a trusty plot device — "I heard singing, followed it, and found an open basement door. There were Jews inside" — and soon Max is sleeping in the bed of the man's dead son, which sounds like a heartwarming, surrogate-father, it-takes-a-village kind of moment, but it isn't. To Houghteling's credit, the atmosphere here, and throughout "Pictures at an Exhibition," is one of despair, resignation and futility. Sometimes, I could swear I was reading a French roman that had been translated into English, complete with attendant family melodrama including incest and a taboo infant death. Houghteling's sentences can sound as if they were taken from a rather stiff translation of Guy de Maupassant: "What she was telling me, I realized stupidly, the whole tapestry of it, was amazing and terrible." And yet, more than most writers, Houghteling succeeds in making us feel and understand the full, perverse impact of the German pillage of art in World War II, its sickening human cost; and that is some virtue. Rose Valland would approve. Reviewed by Roger Atwood, author of 'Stealing History' and a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Pictures at an Exhibition is remarkably self-assured, astute, worldly, and well-informed: in fact, it does not look like a first novel at all. Its subject matter — stolen paintings, and Nazis, and the insatiable hunger for beauty — requires both erudition and brilliance, and Sara Houghteling has plenty of both, along with a sense of humor and a warm heart." Charles Baxter, author of The Soul Thief
"What a beautiful book! Sara Houghteling's theme here is attachment: to the beauty of art, to childhood, to a world before loss and tragedy. The Paris she conjures for us is vivid and sad, the paintings she describes are glorious. Her prose is luminous." Sophie Gee, author of The Scandal of the Season
"In Pictures at an Exhibition, Sara Houghteling breathes new life into one of history's great, unfinished stories. As exquisitely detailed and lavishly sensuous as the paintings that populate its pages, this is a riveting debut." Dustin Thomason, co-author of The Rule of Four
"Houghteling received a Fulbright to study paintings that went missing during the war, and the detail shines through in this first novel, which effectively depicts the new reality for Jews in postwar Europe." Library Journal
"Houghtelings vivid descriptions of paintings and their power add to the allure of this impressive debut novel." Booklist
"[An] entertaining read and a window into a period in the history of the art market that was quickly denied." San Francisco Chronicle
"[B]esides being a thriller, a travelogue and a mystery, this book also makes for an excellent discussion." Minneapolis Star Tribune
About the Author
Sara Houghteling is a graduate of Harvard College and received her master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, first place in the Avery and Jules Hopwood Awards, and a John Steinbeck Fellowship. She lives in California, where she teaches high school English.
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