The Last Painting of Sara De Vos: Book Review by Dinh.
AMSTERDAM, 1631: Sara de Vos becomes the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the city’s Guild of St. Luke. Though women do not paint landscapes (they are generally restricted to indoor subjects), a wintry outdoor scene haunts Sara: She cannot shake the image of a young girl from a nearby village, standing alone beside a silver birch at dusk, staring out at a group of skaters on the frozen river below. Defying the expectations of her time, she decides to paint it.
NEW YORK CITY, 1957: The only known surviving work of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, hangs in the bedroom of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer, Marty de Groot, a descendant of the original owner. It is a beautiful but comfortless landscape. The lawyer’s marriage is prominent but comfortless, too. When a struggling art history grad student, Ellie Shipley, agrees to forge the painting for a dubious art dealer, she finds herself entangled with its owner in ways no one could predict.
SYDNEY, 2000: Now a celebrated art historian and curator, Ellie Shipley is mounting an exhibition in her field of specialization: female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. When it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and her forgery are on route to her museum, the life she has carefully constructed threatens to unravel entirely and irrevocably.
Be prepared to be bowled over by this captivating book that entwines the lives of Sara de Vos, Ellie Shipley, and Marty de Groot. It was a pleasure to read this book and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.
Here’s what I liked:
Smith’s book is beautifully written and easy to read.
Australian born Dominic Smith has written three other novels, and although I have not read them, this being my first of his, I would definitely want to check out his other works based on his writing style of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
I enjoyed reading about the painting techniques and was enthralled with the whole process. Much of the story is about the original painting and the forgery, and whilst there are lots of descriptive parts on art, I did not find it verbose.
” She’s thinking about the impossibility of warmer days while she stares out at the brittle world from the cottage window, at the pendants of ice hardening along the barren fruit trees, the vapor of hoarfrost against the fence palings.”
At first I thought this was going to be another art heist story like The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro. However, it doesn’t turn out to be that way.
Marty’s painting of At the Edge of a Wood does get stolen but the story itself is not about just the painting but the 3 lives that are connected to the painting. It’s about the fate and choices made by these people.
Smith uses the three time periods to show what happens to the original painting and how it connects to the characters.
The plot is not linear as we travel from New York in 1950s, back to Amsterdam 1600s and to Sydney 2000s. This could have been confusing with it jumping back and forth but it was done extremely well by Smith.
The separation of time with different narratives made the book interesting and easy to follow.
Smith’s decision to have the painter, the art historian and the owner of the painting as the focal point of the book was a smart move.
The three narratives were interesting. I liked Ellie’s and Marty’s story but it was not as fascinating as Sara’s.
I particularly liked Sara de Vos’ story and wanted to learn more about her and her life in the Dutch Golden Age and was eager to get back to her story whenever it moved away from her.
Smith’s characters were developed well, complex, and believable.
I also enjoyed the ending. As I was nearing the end of the 287 page book I was wondering how it would all come together. It didn’t disappoint.
It’s satisfying to say the Smith tied it up nicely and didn’t leave me wondering. Everything came full circle.
Was there anything I didn’t like?
I didn’t like the weird/awkward relationship between the two main characters Ellie and Marty.
Their relationship was a bit fuzzy. I didn’t get the sense of Ellie being in love with Marty, or falling in love with him, and vice versa.
Their feelings were too vague and we don’t really know how they felt about each other until the end of the book. I would have preferred not to have this ambiguity in the middle of the book.
My Final Thoughts:
Aside from the uncertainty of Ellie’s and Marty’s relationship in the middle of the book, I found The Last Painting of Sara de Vos a highly enjoyable read. The book is well written and reads like a knife cutting cake.
The interesting story line together with the great characters, which are complex and well developed, makes it a captivating read.
Check out the book club discussion questions for The Last Painting of Sara De Vos.
Did this book appeal to you? I would love to hear your thoughts on historical fiction books that tie in art.