I have been fortunate to read some of the newest books available through giveaways sponsored by Shelf Awareness and Goodreads. The latest one that I have finished reading is Deby Eisenberg’s Pictures of the Past. Here is my extended review of the novel.
Pictures of the Past
By Deby Eisenberg
Published by Studio House Literary, 2011
Deby Esisenberg’s Pictures of the Past is a historical novel centered around a fictional Henri Lebasque painting. While Henri Lebasque was a real French impressionist, this particular painting called Jeune Fille a la Plage is not. At its heart, this is a saga of three generations that begins with the period prior to World War II and ends in the modern era.
Taylor Woodmere reluctantly leaves his spoiled,rich girlfriend Emily in Chicago to go to Paris to meet with his father’s business partner, Emanuel Berger. Through his association with Emanuel, Taylor meets his daughter, Sarah. There is an instant connection between him and Sarah. So much so that the painting he bought as a gift for Emily is given to Sarah instead. Taylor even extends his trip and travels to Berlin where Nazism is on the rise. He recognizes the threat that Hitler poses for the Berger family as well as for all those of Jewish descent. While Sarah is considered to be half-Jewish (her mother is not Jewish), it matters not a bit to Taylor. He has fallen in love with her and wants to marry her. Further, he wants them to leave Germany as soon as possible despite the effect upon the business of his host. However, while he returns to America, the family stays on figuring it will get better. Letters are exchanged between the pair, but eventually even they abruptly end about the time of Kristallnacht.
Emanuel is taken away by the Nazis; Sarah and her mother go into hiding as servants with new identities, and plans are made for their escape on a boat sailing for Cuba. Only Sarah (and the painting) get on the boat, however, but behind-the-scenes politics eventually get the boat turned around and heading back to Germany. As they begin the return voyage, Sarah becomes involved with the resistance movement in order to protect Jewish children, and Taylor loses total contact with her and her parents.
The painting eventually ends up at Taylor’s home, though, but his continued attempts in finding her come to nothing. At some point, the painting is donated to the Art Institute of Chicago, but not before it is seen by others.
A few years after the war, Emily and he marry. They have a son, Court, who is not motivated to working for the Woodmere family business. He is handsome, charming, but lazy and entitled. He discovers a waitress in a small diner that he romances. After more than a few dates, Rachel Gold succumbs to his charms and becomes pregnant. For her, it is love. When he finds out she is both Jewish and pregnant, he is horrified. With his mother’s help, he dismisses her claims of paternity, but gives her money for an abortion. Rather than abort the child, she moves to New York and lives with her Aunt Ida, a survivor of the Holocaust.
Five years pass, and Rachel has completed her education, rears her son, and starts a career. She also has met and fallen in love with a man who wishes to marry her and adopt her son. Before she does, however, she wants to give Court one last chance to know about the existence of his son. Her one attempt to reach out to him goes poorly, and she decides never to tell him. Taylor, his father, sees the child and suspects that this may be Court’s son. His granddaughter also briefly meets Rusty as she and they play together that same afternoon.
Many years later, another Holocaust survivor sees the painting in the museum and challenges it as an art theft perpetrated by the Nazis. She knew that it hung in the Berger’s home prior to the war. It is this declaration that makes Taylor Woodmere put together the mystery surrounding the provenance of the painting which also clears his family’s name. Untangling the threads brings the book to a satisfying conclusion.
From pre-World War II to contemporary times, this historical novel touches upon themes of redemption, Antisemitism, human relationships, and love. It is a compelling read that keeps the reader engaged with the characters throughout. Overall, it is a saga worth reading.