the book: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
[Rachel and her husband are giving a fund-raiser party in their apartment]
The Rent-a-Beats are Rachel’s way of trying to rouse herself back to the living. Feeling bored by the prospect of gently drunk patent attorneys in French cuffs, with conversations about real estate and Nantucket sailing jaunts, she’d remembered an ad she’d clipped from an alumni magazine.
Add zest to your Tuxedo Park party… rent a Beat. Completely equipped: beard, eye shades, old army jacket, Levi’s, frayed shirt sneakers or sandals (optional). Deductions allowed for no beard, baths, shoes or haircuts. Lady Beats also available.
When she called the number in the ad a woman with an adenoidal voice answered, apparently reading from a script. For a flat rate of $250.. you can have two artists, two poets, and two intellectuals show up at a designated time…
The woman asked, “How many Beatniks would you like, ma’am?” and, “Do you prefer the women in Mexican shawls or bolero jackets?” By the end of the call, Rachel had chosen their complete wardrobe, right down to the ballet flats, berets, sunglasses, and silver earrings.
****ADDED LATER: Jessica Goody found what seems to be the actual advert featured in the book and sent it to me:
commentary: A most unlikely connection between two books I have read recently. On Sunday I posted about The Half Hunter by John Sherwood, a forgotten English crime thriller. I said
‘I wish I’d lived in a time where I could’ve been a Beatnik’, said no-one, ever.
I strongly recommend that you Google Image or Pinterest search on ‘beatnik party’: the pictures are stupendous. Or on ‘Beatnik book covers’. Honestly. I implore you. It was obviously tremendous fun, with terrific clothes.And then up popped this couldn’t-be-more different book, a recent American novel about painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and art history, and fakers and forgeries, spinning between the 17th century in the Netherlands, the late 1950s in NY, and the year 2000 in Australia.
I was very wary of this book: it had many potential strikes against it. Historic present narrative, 3 different timelines, and something of the books that I rail about on the blog:
There is a certain kind of American novel that I rudely describe as ‘And then we went uptown and then we went downtown and then it was Thanksgiving’: lists of events with mysterious trails of meaning, the author saying ‘make what you can of them’.And there are a few sections throughout tending that way (which I would have cut if I were his editor: Eel fishing and fridge-drowning for example). But overall the book was wonderful, I absolutely loved it.
We follow Sara, the Dutch artist trying to make her way in a world (the 1630s) that is not prepared to accept women painters, and there are thrilling descriptions of both the process and the results of her painting. In the 1950s, Marty the wealthy lawyer is trying to find out what happened to his picture. And Elly is a penniless student who makes money by not asking too much about the restoration work she does in Brooklyn. There are sections set 40 years later, teasing out what has become of Marty and Elly.
To say more would be to spoiler – this is not a crime book or a mystery as such, although there are secrets and unknowables.
It is immensely readable and entertaining – I actually read its 370 pages in a day, because I so wanted to know what was going to happen to the main characters. When the narrative switched I would be saddened, and then quickly become engrossed in the new angle on the story.
I loved that some sections of the book were about older people: always an unexpected pleasure.
I loved the clothes descriptions:
Ellie’s wearing a cotton sundress that makes her feel flimsy and exposed compared to [her supervisor] Hornsby, who looks like she just came in from a jaunt in the Swiss Alps instead of a bagel run on Upper Broadway.I loved the writing:
[In 2000] she notices that he still wears the same cologne – an alpine and citrus telegram that arrives from 1958.And I wished so much that I could see Sara’s paintings, described so clearly and cleverly.
One mystery in the book is never solved, and I wish Smith had been clearer about that (who took the photo, and when?) – I think it added nothing to leave that unresolved.
But other than that – a wonderful book.
Sara de Vos is fictional, but Smith mentions in a note a Dutch artist called Judith Leyster of around the same time, and the picture above is a self-portrait by her from around 1630. It is from the NGA images collection. (Smith also tells us that the rent-a-beat advert was real – though of course we don’t know if it ever produced results.)
The book reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a good thing, and is about a million times better than the exasperating The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, which covers vaguely similar ground.