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The Center of the Worldby Thomas Van Essen
Synopses & Reviews
Alternating between nineteenth-century England and present-day New York, this is the story of renowned British painter J. M. W. Turner and his circle of patrons and lovers. It is also the story of Henry Leiden, a middle-aged family man with a troubled marriage and a dead-end job, who finds his life transformed by his discovery of Turner’s The Center of the World, a mesmerizing and unsettling painting of Helen of Troy that was thought to have been lost forever.
This painting has such devastating erotic power that it was kept hidden for almost two centuries, and was even said to have been destroyed...until Henry stumbles upon it in a secret compartment at his summer home in the Adirondacks. Though he knows it is an object of immense value, the thought of parting with it is unbearable: Henry is transfixed by its revelation of a whole other world, one of transcendent light, joy, and possibility.
Back in the nineteenth century, Turner struggles to create The Center of the World, his greatest painting, but a painting unlike anything he (or anyone else) has ever attempted. We meet his patron, Lord Egremont, an aristocrat in whose palatial home Turner talks freely about his art and his beliefs. We also meet Elizabeth Spencer, Egremont’s mistress and Turner’s muse, the model for his Helen. Meanwhile, in the present, Henry is relentlessly trailed by an unscrupulous art dealer determined to get his hands on the painting at any cost. Filled with sex, beauty, and love (of all kinds), this richly textured novel explores the intersection between art and eroticism.
"Van Essen's debut novel departs from the recent real-life discovery of maritime landscapist J.M.W. Turner's erotica to trace a fictional portrait by the painter of a scantily clad Helen of Troy awaiting Paris. Van Essen begins with art critic John Ruskin's legendary destruction of Turner's scandalous output before flashing back to the portrait's origins in an after-dinner conversation between Turner and his patron, Lord Egremont. Flash forward to modern-day art dealer Arthur Bryce as he pursues the once-infamous, now-invaluable painting. Another flashback, to the early 20th century, finds wealthy American Cornelius Rhinebeck transporting the painting of Helen from England to his Adirondack lodge, where it remains hidden until middle-aged Henry Leiden encounters it while sorting through his deceased father's belongings. All who meet Turner's Helen see simultaneously truth, beauty, and the impetus for sin. With the painting's journey, newcomer Van Essen demonstrates a flair for dialogue and an appreciation for how art moves the human heart. Agent: Chris Calhoun, the Chris Calhoun Agency. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Alternating between 19th century Europe and present-day New England, the narrative follows the great British painter J. M. W. Turner and his scene of artists, intellectuals, and lovers; and Henry, a middle-aged family man whose otherwise mundane existence is disrupted by the discovery of The Center of the World, Turner’s controversial painting of Helen of Troy that had been thought to be lost forever.
This transcendently beautiful painting was so erotic that it was hidden away and supposedly destroyed … until Henry happens to stumble upon it while vacationing at his summer home in the Adirondacks. Now in possession of an object of unimaginable value, Henry finds himself torn between wanting to sell the work and keeping something of beauty in his life. Returning to the 19th century, the reader follows the creation of the painting and learns more about Turner’s beliefs, technique, manner, and indecorous affairs. Filled with sex, beauty, and love (of all kinds), this novel explores the ever-evolving role of art in our lives.
About the Author
Thomas Van Essen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned his PhD in English from Rutgers University. He lives in New Jersey with his family. The Center of the World is his first novel.
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