Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pictures of the Past by Deby Eisenberg

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 11, 2016

An Impressionist painting, hanging for decades in the Art Institute of Chicago and donated by the charismatic philanthropist Taylor Woodmere, is challenged by an elderly woman as a Nazi theft. Taylor's gripping and passionate story takes us back to 1937. Sent to Paris on family business, he reluctantly leaves his girlfriend Emily, a spoiled debutante from Newport, Rhode Island. But once in Europe, he immediately falls in love - first with an Henri Lebasque painting, and then with the enchanting Sarah Berger of Berlin. After Taylor returns home, the Berger family becomes trapped in the Nazi web, and any attempts for the new lovers to be reunited are thwarted. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of Rachel Gold, a beautiful and bright Chicago girl caught up in the times of the late 1960's. Pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend Court Woodmere, Taylor's son, she moves to New York to live with her aunt, a Holocaust survivor. Years later, as the controversy surrounding the provenance of the painting becomes public, Rachel's grown son is disturbed by his inexplicable familiarity with the work of art. And it is only Taylor Woodmere who can unravel the complicated puzzle of their lives. With a heart-grabbing ending, Pictures of the Past is historical fiction at its best, giving a personalized window to the powerful events and intriguing venues of the eras. From a world torn by the horrors of war, a love story emerges that endures through years of separation.

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I liked the idea of Deby Eisenberg’s Pictures of the Past, but nothing about the author’s style or tone worked for me. The flow of the narrative grated my nerves and I ultimately skimmed the bulk of the novel to see how things played out. Fair warning folks, I am in the minority on this one, so take a look at the more favorable commentary before making up your mind on this one. 

The bullet style transitions and Eisenberg’s tendency to show more than she told didn’t appeal to me. I appreciate subtlety, depth, and development, but such gentle handling is not to be found within these pages. Eisenberg rushes from point to point without pause and while I appreciated the movement this created, I couldn’t help wishing the plot twists had been allowed to settle in before the author rushed the next one forward. 

I also struggled with the stereotypic characterizations Eisenberg employed throughout the novel and I found the inconsistent rotation between the large cast confusing. Their voices came together in an odd and unbalance chorus and my inability to differentiate one from the next undermined the emotions they felt and the relationships they engaged in.

My last and final complaint is that the novel didn’t have a lot of atmospheric detail. I couldn't envision the world these characters inhabited. The world building was shallow and I couldn’t envision it in my mind’s eye. Even the painting at the center of the narrative seemed a blank canvas in my imagination and I couldn’t help feeling cheated by the lack of detail.

I’m glad I tried it out, but at the end of the day Pictures of the Past wasn’t my kind of story and I don’t see myself recommending it forward.

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Although the initial scandal of a stolen painting had a short-lived play in the papers, it was only the resolution that caught and kept the national and international media’s attention. even Time magazine saved some pages to retell briefly what they termed “a heartwarming story, spanning generations, finally giving peace to those seeking provenance, giving closure to those clinging to pictures of the past.”
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