Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The Gallery Of Vanished Husbands reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
The term chick lit is used
fairly indiscriminately to describe any novel written by a woman for women –
and often it’s said with a sneer. Not only is this annoying but it’s no help
whatsoever to readers. We need another label altogether to identify books like The Gallery Of Vanished Husbands by
Natasha Solomons (Hachette, $37.99) which yes, have female appeal, but aren’t
frothy sex-and-shopping stories or potboilers.
This is UK writer Solomons’
third novel and like her previous ones it is a touching tale with a Jewish
theme. Mother-of-two Juliet Montague is living in a conservative Jewish
community in London. Her husband has abandoned her, disappearing without a
trace, and so she is considered an aguna
– forced by tradition to be forever chained to him, pitied by her neighbours
and expected to live out her life quietly and invisibly, working in the family
But it is the 1960s and she
isn’t a woman who finds it easy to live quietly. We discover this right at the
beginning of the book, which opens on Juliet’s thirtieth birthday, when she
goes out to buy a fridge with her hard-saved money and ends up commissioning an
artist to paint her portrait instead.
It turns out that Juliet has
a deep, visceral love of paintings and a genius for spotting talent. That first
picture leads her into the London art world of the swinging sixties where she
makes new friends and poses for portraits time and again – in fact the story is
constructed around the various pictures of Juliet that are painted throughout
Many of the artists are
drawn to her, but there is one in particular, a recluse who never leaves
Dorset, and whose work is unfashionable and unprofitable, that she finds
herself fascinated by in return.
Juliet is an outsider in all
the worlds she occupies, a woman who will never be free unless she can find
George, the man she loved but never really knew. Her search takes her to
California but what she discovers there doesn’t help her situation one bit. The Gallery Of Vanished Husbands is about
how she escapes her cage and finds her measure of happiness nevertheless.The author has said the
story was inspired by her husband’s family history - he had a grandmother who
was an aguna and struggled to provide
a decent life for her two children, just like Juliet. Solomons never knew her
but still has fleshed out the bones of her story and made it into a book that’s
quietly impressive and full of feeling.
This is a novel about compromise,
family loyalties and love, about all the many different parts of a woman just
waiting to be seen in her. It is gently paced, often with a melancholy tone to
it, an old-fashioned read in many ways.
So not chick-lit no, but
engaging nonetheless. While I enjoyed both of Solomons’ previous titles, I
think this is the one with the most depth and maturity.
About the reviewer. Nicky Pellegrino, an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 27 October 2013.