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 spectacle factory.

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 her life.
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.

Her latest novel , The Food Of Love Cookery School, has just been published.

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