The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons

The year was 1958, and Juliet Montague was turning thirty. She’d planned to be sensible, to go out and bring home the new refrigerator that she had been saving hard to buy. But Juliet had always had an eye for art, and on the way to the shops she spotted a young artist, Charlie, at work. She asked to buy the painting; he wouldn’t sell it, but he offered to paint Juliet instead. A much better present!18216962

It wasn’t the first time that Juliet’s portrait was painted. The first time had been when she was just nine years-old. But her husband had taken that portrait – and one or two other things of value – when he abandoned Juliet and their two children.

And, because Juliet came from a strict Jewish community, that made her an ‘aguna’ – a woman who is still a wife, and will always be a wife, unless her husband can be traced and persuaded to grant a divorce.

But Juliet’s second portrait heralded the start of a new life. She was pulled into the circle of a group of young artists, ready to open a new gallery to showcase their work, and eager  for Juliet, whose instinctive understanding of art they greatly appreciated, to run it for them. It was a whole new world, and Juliet loved it.

But Juliet’s traditional, conventional, parents don’t understand. They are good people, they love their daughter, and they have the means to help support her and their grandchildren, but they fear for their daughter.

She moves between her two worlds – belonging and yet not belonging in each of them – and knowing, but not quite admitting, that she can’t be at peace until she learns her husband’s story.

Natasha Solomons writes beautifully, with a wonderfully light touch, and she catches people, places, emotions, quite beautifully. I appreciated that she shared a great deal of understanding of the Jewish community, and Juliet’s position, without in any way making this a book about issues. It’s a book about Juliet’s life, her relationships, and her emotional journey.

I particularly liked the way that the impact of the family situation on Juliet’s son and daughter was illuminated at different points of the story. And the way it was shown that times, relationships, everything changes.

But I was disappointed that other characters were barely illuminated at all. There was so much potential in the many of the artists that crossed Juliet’s path, and so I was disappointed that there were intriguing hints, particularly of things that had happened in the past, but no more than that.

The structure is interesting: each section begins with the catalogue number and title of a different portrait of Juliet, and spins a story around that time of her life. That made things a little episodic, but it was only a problem at the end of the book, when the story jumped forward quite a few years.

Those things, the slight fuzziness that they give the story, make me inclined to say that this isn’t as good a book as The Novel in the Viola – which I loved – but it is very readable, and emotionally engaging. I appreciated that it was a very different story, set in a different world and at a different time.

The Gallery of Lost Husbands is a quiet story, a story of a life being lived. There are no big dramas, but the important moments, when something happened or when realisation dawned, were captured beautifully. You could say that it’s a very grown up light read …

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

I loved The Novel in the Viola.

It is one of those books in which everything – characters, emotions, settings, writing, period, storylines – is right. And everything works together beautifully to produce a book that is far more than the sum of those parts.

At heart though, The Novel in the Viola is the story of a life. The life of Elise, younger daughter of Anna and Julian Landau. Opera singer and novelist respectively. Elise worries that she is not as talented as her sister, Margot, but that casts just a very small shadow on a wonderful life. Because Elise is loved, and because she loves her family, she is happy and she is secure.

But the year is 1938. The Landaus live in Austria, in Vienna. And they are Jewish.

Anna and Julian realise that their family is at risk and take steps to flee. Margot and her husband secure American visas and they hope that they will be able to do the same. But they know that they will not be able to secure a visa for Elise, and so she writes an advertisement:

VIENNESE JEWESS, 19, seeks position as domestic servant. Speaks fluid English. I will cook your goose. Elise Landau, Vienna 4, Dorotheegassee, 30/5.

A position is secured and Elise is despatched to London. A temporary arrangement, to keep her safe until things change, until the family can be reunited.

Elise, her family, her world were alive for me, and I felt her sorrow as she was separated from them. I admired her character as she coped with the journey, the things she had to do in London. I empathised with her as she worried about making her money last, as she devoured the chocolate her sister tucked into her luggage, as she struggled to cope with the separation from her family and her home.

Or, to put it simply, I grew to love Elise.

She becomes a parlour maid at Tyneford House on the Dorset coast. During her life there she will experience both love and loss. She will make friends, and grow to love the house and the surrounding countryside. But she will also suffer slights and setbacks as she tries to find her place in the world, and reunite her family.

The slights come because Elise doesn’t quite fit. She plays the part of a parlour maid but she comes from the world of the family. The butler observes that, after Elise, Tyneford would never be the same again and he is right, for more reasons than he knows.

It would love to write about so many wonderful details, characters and events, but I mustn’t. This is a book that needs to unravel slowly, so that you can watch over Elise as her life progresses.

The settings, from Vienna to London to Dorset, are wonderfully painted, and the sense of period and the point in history too are never lost. The characters, and their relationships, are fully and beautifully drawn. I believed in them utterly.

That meant that I was completely involved as Tyneford House and its occupants faced both war, and the end of an era. Things would never be the same again.

I knew that.  I had the benefit of hindsight, and that made the story so much more moving.

It was such a wonderful story, so beautifully written, and with such a range of emotions. I think I felt every emotion that a book can inspire before I reached the end.

That end came quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, though it might have been that I just didn’t want to leave Elise and her world. It was unexpected and yet completely right, and it was given extra poignancy by the very real events that it mirrored.

A few small things didn’t quite work.Maybe a few too many nice, understanding characters. One or two modern idioms slipped in. And the story of the actual novel in the actual viola didn’t quite work for me.

But they were small things, and I could happily let them pass by, because the many delights of this novel made them seem unimportant.

And because The Novel in the Viola really is a book that can touch your heart, if you only let it.

And, as I said, I loved it.