Book Review for “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.
In reality, none of Sarah van Baalbergen’s works survived, but Dominic Smith decided to turn the few known facts about her into fiction by renaming her as Sara de Vos and resurrecting her work. Starting out in 17th Century Holland, Smith shows us a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband, whose own talent is surprisingly recognized. Smith then brings us to Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s, to introduce us to Ellie, an Australian woman, desperately trying to finish her PhD in art history on the subject of female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Ellie returned to her studies after finding out how male dominated the art restoration world was. To keep from starving, she restored a few paintings as a freelancer, but her biggest challenge comes when a suspicious art dealer asks her to replicate a rare painting – the last known surviving painting by Sara de Vos. In this way, Smith begins to construct a composition that sweeps across centuries and continents, eventually bringing all the shadows and light into focus.
With all this, Smith grabs your attention from the very first moments, with the scenes of Sara with her husband and daughter on an outing to see a beached whale, which her husband decides to paint. When Sara suggests drawing the scene from an elevated viewpoint (which her husband rejects), we immediately realize that this is no ordinary woman. She has a rare talent that the world refuses to allow her to express because of her gender. Then Smith turns to 1950s Ellie; she too has unique gifts, but once again, her peers ignore her because she is a woman. This lovely parallel flows underneath almost the whole novel, tinting the action with splashes of feminism along the way – in various shades of prematurity.
Okay, I apologize for using too many art-related metaphors here, but I think you can see what I’m getting at here, especially when you realize that a man wrote this book. This isn’t to say that men can’t write strong, well-rounded, female protagonists, but more often than not, these women end up with one or more stereotypical attributes – usually negative ones. These types of things annoy female readers; they can even cause us to dislike the characters altogether (which makes me want to bitch-slap those authors). Smith came very close to the edge of this trap when he dealt with Ellie’s virginity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude, and I can take a sex scene thrown into a story, particularly when it advances the plot. Luckily, Smith’s little interlude did have a purpose, and Ellie’s virginity (as well as her losing it) actually made sense. However, the lovemaking scene itself was on the bland side and the things Ellie and the man do immediately afterwards, seemed a touch far-fetched for me. In the end, Smith needed this for the overall story line, but I’m wondering if he couldn’t have come up with a slightly more elegant solution.
Thankfully, this was almost the only thing that I didn’t care for in this novel. However, I did find myself a bit surprised that Ellie didn’t try harder to stem at least some of her paranoia, by reassuring herself that her connection to the forged painting was probably tenuous, at best. Finally, I also felt a bit of confusion regarding how the ending worked out, but at least the premise behind it was creative and unexpected.
These few niggles aside, one thing I adored was how very different Smith made the 17th century parts feel. The whole atmosphere surrounding Sara de Vos and her life felt almost like it was written by another author altogether. Obviously, Smith’s in-depth research imbued him with a need to shade these passages with a very different color pallet, one with more muted and subdued tones (for wont of better metaphors). This could have felt disjointed, but Smith also let this slip into the passages when Ellie is working on copying Sara’s painting. In this way, Smith gracefully smoothed the edges between the 17th century and the mid-20th century passages, and bravo to Smith for that!
I should note that I didn’t simply read this book; I devoured it. This novel had me fascinated from the very first pages and held my attention throughout. Although some things didn’t work for me, the vast majority did, and because of this, I’ll warmly recommend this novel and give it a solid four out of five stars.
“The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” by Dominic Smith, released April 5, 2016, is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sarah Crichton Books, for sending me an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.