A coveted painting of the Immaculate Conception connects the lives of women past and present in Velástegui’s ambitious debut novel.
Widowed art collector and wealthy socialite Paloma Zubiondo is ensconced in her Laguna Beach, Calif., home when she receives a mysterious call from a woman claiming to be held captive and begging for the return of a stolen painting of the Immaculate Conception. The caller triggers memories of Paloma’s childhood in Quito, Ecuador, and sends Paloma on a quest to discover whether or not she possesses this stolen painting by the artist Isabel Santiago. This meticulously researched historical novel alternates between Paloma’s art investigations and the lives of historical figures from centuries past, all connected by paintings of the Virgin Mary. One such chapter follows 17th-century Ecuadorian artist Isabel Santiago as she struggles to overcome the shadow of her father, the celebrated painter Miguel de Santiago. The novel includes many charming minor characters, such as Isabel’s devoted servant Shining Star, who struggles with the inequities of a class-based society that labels her a “little mongrel.” In another engaging chapter, a proud widow tries to keep up appearances while her printing press flounders in 18th-century Mexico City. There are several potentially fruitful story lines—colonial tensions and class divisions, art forgery and human trafficking—but Velástegui does not fully flesh them out. Too much of the drama takes place offstage or via summary, leaving the narrative bogged down in exposition. While intriguing at the outset, the central mystery of Paloma’s Immaculate Conception painting becomes tangled in dangling plotlines and long passages on Spanish Colonial art. Nevertheless, the author shows a talent for period detail, sparkling dialogue and vivid characters that bring her story to life.
This richly rendered but unfocused novel needs more action and less art history to keep readers intrigued.