four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
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0

A-PortraitHenry MacAlpine, a renowned British portraitist in 1900s London, has moved to a remote island off the coast of Brittany. He brings his colleague William Naysmith, England’s most incisive art critic, to sit for a portrait. While Naysmith sits, silent, MacAlpine talks. We learn of the pair’s friendship, of Naysmith’s brilliance (he was one of the first in the London art scene to appreciate French impressionism), and of his delight in power. MacAlpine and Pears both have something up their sleeves—over the course of this short, taut novel, it becomes clear that MacAlpine wants vengeance, because the power-mad Naysmith has destroyed the careers and lives of numerous artists. Or has he?
Riverhead. 215 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 1573222984

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As he has done in his other novels, Pears cleverly deploys the murder-mystery genre to explore the labyrinthine possibilities of narrative. … A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but Pears’s prose is, thankfully, up to the challenge of painting skillful verbal portraits of the two antagonists." Ross King

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Those too embarrassed to admit they enjoyed The Da Vinci Code will welcome Pears’s smart little psychological thriller. … Refreshingly, the critic doesn’t have the last word; in fact, he’s disconcertingly silent." Dana Kennedy

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"He’s done it again, an elegantly urbane, subtly crafted work that’s filled with surprises, shocks, and stunning revelations. … Once you come to the chilling conclusion of the novel, you recognize how crafty Pears has been in designing his yarn. Things fall devastatingly into place." Sam Coale

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Pears … is a shrewd and masterful raconteur, and we are in for much more than a mortal reckoning between artist and critic (though we get that, too). … This novel, full of such emotional sabotage and honesty, seems dutifully straightforward, especially compared to the baroque intrigue of An Instance of the Fingerpost. It is nonetheless just as splendid an accomplishment."
Howard Norman

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Because both the author and the artist are so narrowly focused on their subject, observant readers will have figured out both crime and punishment well before MacAlpine puts his brush down. There’s still a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from Pears’s wit and able writing, but mystery fans will miss the pleasure of being outsmarted by a master."
Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

Who would have thought a 200-page monologue about art could be so fascinating? Yet Pears has pulled it off with panache. A little less sprawling and complicated than Pears’s acclaimed An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002), and yet richer and more satisfying than his Jonathan Argyll mystery series, The Portrait is just that—a portrait of a single episode, a single monologue. Though most reviewers bent over backwards not to reveal the "surprise" ending, the finale will not really come as a great shock. Still, Pears is no less learned, skilled, crafty, or acclaimed than the two men who sit at the center of this novel, and readers will relish a few hours in Pears’s capable hands.

Also by the Author

An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998): This novel is often compared to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Four different eyewitnesses tell differing tales of the murder of Dr. Robert Grove in 1663 Oxford, England.