Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Memory Painter by Gwendolyn Womack

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: July 1, 2015

Two lovers who have traveled across time. A team of scientists at the cutting edge of memory research. A miracle drug that unlocks an ancient mystery. Bryan Pierce is an internationally famous artist whose paintings have dazzled the world. But there's a secret to his success: Every canvas is inspired by an unusually vivid dream. When Bryan awakes, he possesses extraordinary new the ability to speak obscure languages and an inexplicable genius for chess. All his life, he has wondered if his dreams are recollections, if he is re-experiencing other people's lives. Linz Jacobs is a brilliant neurogeneticist, absorbed in decoding the genes that help the brain make memories, until she is confronted with an exact rendering of a recurring nightmare at one of Bryan's shows. She tracks down the elusive artist, and their meeting triggers Bryan's most powerful dream yet: visions of a team of scientists who, on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer's, died in a lab explosion decades ago. As Bryan becomes obsessed with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the scientists' deaths, his dreams begin to reveal what happened at the lab, as well as a deeper mystery that may lead all the way to ancient Egypt. Together, Bryan and Linz start to discern a pattern. But a deadly enemy watches their every move, and he will stop at nothing to ensure that the past stays buried.

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My purchase of Gwendolyn Womack’s The Memory Painter was something of a surprise. I mean no offense, but when push comes to shove I’m a bit of a penny pincher and rarely buy books blindly. Truth is, I’d not heard of this piece before spotting the striking yellow cover at the Historical Novel Society Conference bookstore and was entirely unfamiliar with the author. I queried a handful of my peers and while they agreed the book looked promising, no one had read it and I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to be the first to plunge into a debut. Historically speaking, such ventures seldom ended in my favor, but something about the description sparked my curiosity and refused to let go. I debated a while, but ultimately caved to indecision and acquired the title. 

I’ll be honest, things did not start well. I spent the first three chapters wondering what I’d gotten myself into, but all that changed in chapter four. The plot started coming together and the story began to find its feet. The rush, however, was short-lived and by the end of chapter eleven, I felt I could confidently predict how things would turn out. Chapters twelve through thirty-nine didn’t leave much of an impression, the drama was diverting enough, but predictable in my eyes. The pacing intensified in chapter forty and the curve-ball in chapter forty-five found me cheering Womack’s creativity, but the moment was all too brief as the novel concluded only three chapters later. 

Did I like the story? Yes, looking back at the plot, I think The Memory Painter a fun crossover piece. There isn’t as much history as I’d hoped, but I enjoyed the elements Womack wove into the narrative. I think the author could have done more with the emotional relationship between Bryan and Linz, but the pair proved enjoyable protagonists nonetheless. I found Finn and Conrad incredibly interesting, but you’ll have to read the book to understand why. As far as supporting characters are concerned, I liked Barbara, but felt Claudette, Martin and Layla underdeveloped in comparison which bothered me as I felt their roles should have placed them on more equal footing.

Ideally, I’d have loved a historical note. Something that explained how and why the author chose the historic figures that appear throughout the piece. Personally, I’d have loved to know why certain figures, Louis Le Vau and Pedro Damiano for example, were less prominent than Origenes Adamantius and Alexander Pushkin. I’d also have liked a slightly stronger finish. I appreciate that Womack’s conclusion is meant to lead into a follow-up, but the final notes of the narrative felt rushed and awkward just the same.  

Would I recommend The Memory Painter? As usual, that would depend on the reader. Diehard historic fiction fans might find the book a difficult sell, but the book incorporates exciting elements of both thrillers and science fiction and should prove quite entertaining to those with varied tastes and open minds. 

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Michael didn't know what the right course was anymore. All he knew was that Renovo had the power to change human existence, and the responsibility that came with being its creator was paralyzing. Was he a monster or some sort of hero? He didn't know.
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