By a strange coincidence, the two novels I've had on the go in the past couple of weeks have both been about the disappearance of paintings by great artists of the Renaissance. One was of course Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which you'll be hearing about soon if I can muster up the necessary courage to try to do it justice -- in that novel the painting is Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch (1654). In Elizabeth Lowry's novel, the lost work is by Giovanni Bellini, a Madonna, presumably painted in about 1515. I say presumably because, as far as I know, the painting for which the protagonist is desperately searching throughout the book does not actually exist. Or maybe it does, but if so, it is as thoroughly lost as the picture that Thomas Lynch is so obsessively seeking.
But if you think that a novel about somebody looking for a lost painting doesn't sound very interesting, think again. Although of course you may be curious about the whereabouts of the picture (and I certainly guessed exactly where it was a good long time before Thomas did), this is certainly not what will keep you reading this clever, dark, ultimately tragic comedy.
Thomas Lynch is a middle-aged art historian. Born in rather humble circumstances in Ireland, he has recently been dismissed, under a large but undefined (though clearly sexual) cloud, from the university in Vermont where he has spent most of his working life. For many years he has been aware of the probable existence of Bellini's final Madonna, which shows the mother of Christ in middle age, grieving the loss of her son. Now, through various circuitous means, he has arrived at Mawle, a decaying country mansion in England, where he has reason to believe the painting may be hidden. As he arrives, he gazes at the house:
Above me the papery sky was brushed by the tall rear windows of Mawle, rough but rosy in its green petticoat. It overlooked the long runner of velvet grass that stretched from the raised terrace with its curved flight of descending steps, past parallel beds of foxgloves, lips sleepily incensing the warm air, down to a high beech hedge screening a decayed tennis court. The hypnotic hum of insects rubbing their glassy wings together rose from a nearby azalea bush. The upholstered afternoon rounded out its silences, each hour a plump cushion of peace.
But the outward beauty of the building hides a crumbling, dirty, ill-cared for interior, presided over by its owner, Anna Roper, a woman of indeterminate age -- Thomas at first takes her for a teenager -- together with a nine-year-old girl of indeterminate parentage and a large, muscular, uncommunicative gardener. Thomas feels sure at first that he can hoodwink Anna and her absent Italian mother, but it soon becomes clear that he is the one being hoodwinked, as he is fed with endless supplies of grappa and a strange herbal tea after which he invariably falls asleep.
Thomas is a brilliant creation. On the surface, he's a pretty unattractive character. His past is littered with sexual misdemenours, he's frequently drunk, he has no morals to speak of, he's arrogant and pretentious. But he's also deeply pitiable, lonely and frightened. As for Anna, seemingly naive and confused but actually far more complex than she at first appears, her complicated feelings for Thomas have him, and the reader, reeling and uncertain.
Elizabeth Lowry is an art historian, and this, published in 2008, was her first and apparently so far her only novel. As you can see from the passage above, she writes like an angel, and the book is full of the most wonderful observations of seemingly random objects -- a pair of sunglasses folded 'in the lotus position' on a table, a pair of soiled pyjamas 'suckling a litter of socks' in a washing basket. But she also has the ability to see into the human heart, and in the end this is a deeply compassionate - though frequently also very funny -- study of lonely people who manage to miss what in the end they most desire. Highly recommended.