The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, by Natasha Solomons

Cover of Natasha Solomons Gallery of Vanished Husbands. A woman with red lipstick (the top of her head is cut off, of course) wearing a green sleeveless dress, gloves, and a beaded choker necklace.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.



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15 Responses to The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, by Natasha Solomons

  1. Rohan says:

    Wry, reflective – you make this novel sound very appealing!

    That’s a good question about what qualities or ingredients earns a book the label “women’s fiction.” I think you might be right that the emotional emphasis is at least part of it. It’s not just that the book is focused on family relationships or friendships, because as is often pointed out, plenty of books by men focus on these things. I was thinking about Joanna Trollope (since I just read one of her novels): are her books considered “women’s fiction”? Is it a question of (assumed) scope — smallness of scale, lack of (palpable) ambition in the telling of the story? Or is it really nothing more than a marketing gambit, and thus the difficulty pinning down exactly what it signifies?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      What if I told you it reminded me oddly of Eliot? Not that Solomons has that kind of omniscient narrator that overtly makes moral comments on everyone, but she managed to evoke my sympathy with all of them by the end. No one’s a villain, including the traditional parents. (I feel like I’m overselling it with that comparison).

      I puzzle over the “women’s fiction” label a lot. Because domestic fiction by men obviously doesn’t get it, even if it may tell a very similar kind of story. I think novels that are seen as “commercial” get it, and that that’s as much a question of voice as content. But what exactly is the dividing line between commercial and “general” or “literary”? It’s probably mostly a marketing judgment call. Yes, this book is “about” art but there’s nothing dense or difficult about it, and its storytelling is quite straightforward. I wouldn’t call it “literary fiction” (a term I don’t really like) in the sense of formally experimental or a novel of ideas. But I’m glad it *wasn’t* presented as women’s fiction because I tend to avoid that–I think I see it as shallower (often unfairly) and expect it to be more emotional/melodramatic.

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      I do have to take exception here about both of your definitions of women’s fiction. Those books tend to be quieter and more reflective, rather than fast-paced or melodramatic. They focus on the woman’s emotional journey but it is while she’s wrestling with life and trying to carve out a life worth living, one which has a purpose bigger than the quotidian. They are not as a rule “small” books about one person’s narrowly defined journey but rather deal in broad themes. Thus, to me, the scope is bigger. I find that the scope of domestic fiction like the Victorian kind by men is smaller in scope because the emotional journey is stunted. In women’s fiction, you get the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of life lived with a purpose.

      I would highly recommend picking up one of Barbara O’Neal books, especially The Garden of Happy Endings.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I definitely concede that I’m overgeneralizing, especially as there are books labeled “women’s fiction” that I’ve enjoyed. But I don’t see them as larger in scope (I’m not sure what Victorian novels you’d mean–but I don’t find the emotional concerns small in Trollope, say, and they are very much about building a meaningful life; I was thinking more about contemporary writers like Franzen–the Jennifer Weiner comparison–Richard Ford or Richard Russo). I don’t see them as SMALLER in scope just because they deal with women’s lives either.

        I don’t mean melodrama in the traditional sense, but I think there’s an emphasis on the emotional situation and effect that’s maybe somewhat exaggerated. Or just more the point of the reading experience. For example, I’ve read a number of books where the female heroine is brought really low before she rebuilds her life: she loses her job, her man, slinks home feeling terrible about herself, that she’s lost everything and is worthless. Juliet’s circumstances at the start of the novel COULD be written that way, but Solomons chooses not to do that and Juliet never feels that way. She’s not satisfied with her life, certainly, but she doesn’t feel devastated. I’m not arguing that one focus is better or worse, but I do prefer this kind of story/approach.

      • Rohan says:

        I really wasn’t trying to define women’s fiction — well, inductively, I guess, I was trying to figure out what defines the works that get marketed that way. But I certainly don’t mean anything either prescriptive or pejorative. If anything, I feel that this marketing may often underestimate these books — and Joanna Trollope’s would be an example there, along with Anne Tyler.

  2. Sunita says:

    This sounds really good! I avoid a lot of non-romance-genre women’s fiction that isn’t lit-fic because I don’t find the journey that the women are on all that interesting. In US WF, at least, it seems like a later life-stage version of Chick Lit (which I also don’t often read, either US or UK). That said, I like romances that overlap with women’s fiction, like the recent Fiona Harper releases. So maybe I’m just confused about the range of the genre. I have a couple of Seidel’s more recent books in my TBR and I need to give one a try. Since I like her writing and voice so much, maybe it will help me sort out what works and what doesn’t.

    I’ve gotten the impression that the “domestic” litfic tag on women’s novels v. the family- and household-centric novels written by men (Franzen, etc.) have more to do with how much the authors hit you over the head with the Big Themes About Life and Culture. So even when you’re reading about a family in the 1960s, you never get to forget you’re reading about The Sixties.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was thinking (especially after Keira’s comment) that “women’s fiction” is such a grab bag term, we could be basing our comments about it on completely different books.

      I know what you mean about the kind of journey, and in my experience the “being brought low/feeling terrible about yourself” is part of that. I have a hard time with most chick lit because it humiliates the heroine. One thing I liked about this book is that Juliet does not feel humiliated. She hates being an object of pity but she doesn’t internalize it. So her life changes, but the emotional aspect of that change and her response to it doesn’t feel like a typical women’s fiction arc to me. Actually, I wonder if I used the term “self-discovery” in the post? Because I think that’s wrong. I think she knows who she is and she just starts to act on it instead of surrendering to her community/family expectations–something she knows she eventually would have done if her husband hadn’t left. So I guess I’m stuck on thinking it’s not so much the plot/content that makes this a book that doesn’t get labeled women’s fiction, as it is the voice and emphasis with which it’s told, which is less commercial (and again, commercial is not meant as a criticism). I expected more Big Ideas and Themes of the 60s but it really wasn’t like that and I enjoyed it more because of that. You’re definitely right about Franzen, at least. Those portentous titles! If a woman wrote a book like Freedom it would never be called that, even if she wanted it to be.

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    Great discussion here on women’s fiction, Liz, Sunita, and Rohan. I’ve put this book on my list because now I’m really curious to see what I think about it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I found your comment really helpful too. I probably should not have used the word “melodrama” (though I have read some women’s fiction that feels emotionally manipulative to me, that is definitely not always the case). I am groping for words to describe a certain kind of emotional arc or focus on creating an emotional response in the reader. Surely there’s something to it besides “I know it when I see it,” but what?! Actually, I’d be curious about how publishers define “women’s fiction.” I should do some googling.

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    To me, women’s fiction comes in two flavors. One has a small romantic sub-plot and the other doesn’t. The women’s fiction that RWA used to recognize as “romantic elements” is the one with the romantic sub-plot with a HEA or HFN. What is common to both types of women’s fiction is the heroine’s journey (physical, mental, emotional), where she dominates the page.

    In my book spreadsheet, I put non-genre fiction books under literary fiction. Women’s fiction could come under mainstream fiction–that was the term that had gained popularity for a while and then died away. Mainstream fiction would be LitFic Lite with commercial appeal?? I can’t distinguish (or rather don’t wish to parse) the difference between mainstream and literary, so everything goes under the LitFic umbrella for me.

  5. this reminds me of a recent book I read, Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, in terms of the reaction it evoked from you. Which makes me wonder if this too might be one of what I call “quiet reads:” stories that focus more on a character’s inner life than on the externalities of that life.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that’s a good way of putting it. There are things here that could be played as Big Events, but they really aren’t.

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    I really enjoyed reading this review. You make the book sound quietly absorbing, and those are some of my favorite kinds of reads, yet I don’t read them enough. There is something about a book that isn’t flashy (which is the impression of this one that I got from your post) that sounds particularly appealing right now, in the midst of all the marketing gimmickry that has flooded the online romance community. I think I”ll see if I can get my hands on it.

    I also wanted to talk a bit about the cover. It’s very green! And what you said about it made me wonder if it was the color you were drawn to. I’ve noticed that I’m very drawn to blue covers (not all of them by any means. But a lot of my favorite covers are blue) and I wondered if you have an affinity for green.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think you might like it, and if you read it, I’d love to know your thoughts. I was struck reading it by how long it’s been since I’ve read a book with Jewish characters. I can’t actually remember the last one.

      That’s a good question about the green. I do have “pear green” walls in my home office that I love. They’re more muted than that color, but pretty green! I think it wasn’t so much that it was green as that it was bright and a rather unusual colour for a book cover; I also really liked her style–a bit Audrey Hepburn, a bit Mod.

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