Natasha Solomons’ Gallery of Vanished Husbands was a browsing find at my favorite bookstore (yes, I still do find some books that way, and some great ones). How could that title and cover not catch my eye? I’ve been reading more paper books again lately because some are easier for me to concentrate on that way (“lighter” genre books are a good e-reading choice for me). That’s meant diversifying the kind of books I read, too, which has helped to pull me out of a long spell of feeling disaffected about reading–not exactly a slump, but a cranky period.
From the back cover:
“At thirty a woman has a directness in her eye. Juliet Montague did anyhow. She knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted a refrigerator.”
But in a rash moment, Juliet commissions a portrait of herself instead. She has been closeted by her conservative Jewish community for too long, ever since her husband disappeared. Now she is ready to be seen.
So begins the journey of a suburban wife and mother into the heart of ’60s London and the thriving art world, where she proves an astute spotter of talent. Yet she remains an outsider, drawn to a reclusive artist who never leaves Dorset and unable to feel free until she has tracked down her husband–a quest that leads to California and a startling discovery.
The Gallery of Vanished Husbands was quieter than that description led me to expect: oh, there are art openings, including when where a young David Hockney makes a cameo, and references to buying trips to New York as Juliet becomes successful, and a wild party at the country house of a guy who manages a band called The Rigbys (hint, hint). But mostly it’s an exploration of Juliet’s self-discovery and her relationships with her family and the circle of young painters she represents (who become a kind of second family). Low-star reviews at Goodreads complain about its lack of passion and drama, but I liked its quieter, wry, reflective mood. As I read Solomons’ book, I thought about what gets marketed as women’s fiction and what doesn’t. There’s nothing in the plot of this book that would be out of place in “women’s fiction,” but I think books given that label usually tell their stories with emphasis on their emotional effect. I’d be curious to know if others agree.
The art in the book is as much metaphor (or metafiction) as setting or subject. Each chapter is headed by a catalogue entry for an imagined show of all the portraits painted of Juliet over the years, and each includes the moment in which that portrait is painted. The one thing Juliet really wants from George, her vanished husband, is the portrait of herself at nine that he stole when he left. A piece of her, she feels, went missing, and she wants it back. Late in the book, Juliet’s son Leonard climbs the stairs lined by his mother’s portraits:
At the top of the stairs was a mirror and Leonard wondered what it was like for Juliet to look in it and see, in addition to her current face, so many decades of herself reflected back at her. Didn’t she lose herself in the collage?
But in fact Juliet finds herself, at least partly, there. Some of the artists, she thinks, don’t see the real Juliet at all, but others capture some piece of her. When Juliet starts the gallery she escapes working in her father’s business, which grinds lenses for spectacles; she’s the only person in her family who doesn’t wear them, something that worries her father, who believes they somehow have a protective effect. But the clear-sighted Juliet can take one look at a painting and feel in her gut whether it’s any good. I liked that Solomons wove the theme of vision through the novel without ever resorting to heavy-handed symbolism.
This is also a story of Jewish immigrant experience. Juliet’s grandparents were the immigrants, and Solomons contrasts her family of conservative, working-class, devout suburban strivers, still with a hint of the shtetl about them (that’s Juliet’s take, not mine), and the wealthy, educated, urban Viennese and Germans, more recently arrived ahead of World War II–they fit in the art world in a way Juliet never can, but she can’t explain to her painter friends how they aren’t the same kind of Jewish. Juliet does, to a large extent, “free” herself from her parents’ community and its expectations; it’s a process that starts with her marriage to George, a handsome recent arrival from Hungary rather than one of the local “nice boys” her mother tries to set her up with. It’s accelerated when George leaves, trapping her as an aguna, neither widow nor wife, unable to marry again because in Jewish law only men can initiate divorce. If she’s not going to be forever the object of the “hostile pity” (what a perfect phrase) of her mother’s friends, she has to reject their beliefs and way of life.
But she never entirely does. She never moves out of the suburban house she lived in with George, because she’ll never quite fit in anywhere, and it’s easier not to fit in at home. She continues to go to her parents’ house for Shabos dinner every week:
Frieda and Leonard [her children] made a token show of resistance, but Juliet understood that it was her job to stand firm so that they could kvetch in safety, knowing that Friday chicken was an immovable event. There was a pleasure in the ordinariness of it, as reassuring as a nursery lullaby.
This life isn’t really something Juliet “escapes”–it’s one piece of her, as the art scene is. Like all of us, she’s a collage of sometimes conflicting pieces. When Juliet’s awakening usurps Frieda’s chance for adolescent self-discovery (she wants to have crushes on artists who paint her portrait), Frieda turns to the religion her mother rejected. Despite all their differences, the family hangs together. They might disapprove of each other, but they love each other all the same.
I think my favorite scene is one where Juliet’s father is praying for his elderly wife:
He prayed at home every day, pretending he was singing in the shower when really he was wearing his yarmulke instead of a shower cap and his tallis instead of a towel. God didn’t mind his nakedness–they were old men together and he pictured God much like himself–a bit of a paunch, inconveniently old, struggling to pee.
There’s something about these lines that captures the narrator’s attitude towards her characters: clear-sighted about their flaws, but affectionate and generous in her treatment of them. And that made me feel the same.
P.S. I didn’t talk about it, but there is a romantic relationship for Juliet, and while it doesn’t unfold in the same way a genre-romance one would, it’s not tragic.