three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-Pictures at an ExhibitionSara Houghteling, a graduate of Harvard College, received a Fulbright scholarship to Paris. Pictures, about the Nazi theft of art during World War II, is her first novel.

The Story: When Hitler’s troops enter Paris in 1940, they start to loot the art and antiques of wealthy Jewish families and art dealers. A noted Parisian art dealer’s disappointing son, Max Berenzon, wants nothing more than to work beside his father and win the love of Rose Clément, his father’s beautiful gallery assistant. Instead, rejected from the family business, he turns to medicine. As the war begins, Max’s father turns to a foreign bank in Paris to protect his paintings before taking his family into hiding. The Berenzons return to Paris after liberation to find their priceless masterpieces gone. But Max, with Rose’s aid, is determined to recover at least some of the family’s collection and prove himself to his father—despite nearly insurmountable obstacles.
Knopf. 243 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307266850

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Incidentally, if you are an art lover for whom the recession has put beautiful coffee table books, not to mention European vacations, out of reach, this book will conjure up the colors of Manet and Picasso more effectively than a glossy reproduction. … [B]esides being a thriller, a travelogue and a mystery, this book also makes for an excellent discussion." Emily Carter

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"While the second half of the book turns into a cat-and-mouse chase, the story is layered with vignettes that give it deeper resonance. [Max’s] quest gives his life purpose and the novel substance." Malena Watrous

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The character Rose is based on a real person, but here she seems less a breathing woman than an obligatory love interest for Max and a device to introduce historical material. … But Pictures at an Exhibition is an entertaining read and a window into a period in the history of the art market that was quickly denied." Reagan Upshaw

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"In its flaws as well as its achievements we see the promise of an outstanding novel to come. … Paris, even under the Germans, is storybook wonderful, and an unending display of great art marches through these pages." David Walton

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A subplot involving a concentration camp survivor who takes in Max is awkwardly woven in, and another one involving a family secret behind a Manet still life feels rushed in at the end. … While she isn’t yet in firm control of the fictional aspects of her story, Houghteling is an intelligent writer with a command of her chosen historical corner." Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

In this historical novel, Houghteling explores Fascism and humanism, unrequited love, and plundered art; it’s a historical fact that most of the paintings Max searches for never resurfaced. Critics couldn’t help but note that Pictures contains the promises and pitfalls of a first novel. Houghteling evokes 1930s and 1940s Paris, the one-of-a-kind paintings, and the chilling complicity of art dealers in crisp, descriptive language. However, reviewers diverged on a number of points. To some, Rose—based on the real-life Rose Valland, a member of the French Resistance who recorded the Nazi theft of Jewish-owned art—occupies the true center of the novel, while to others she remains a static presence. Similarly, some critics commented on unconvincing subplots and drama. Still, Houghteling is a writer to watch—and her subject is never less than fascinating.