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by Dara Horn

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-393-05107-2
Publisher: Norton

A heist with a twist, Horn’s engaging second novel (after In the Image, 2003) explores the history behind a stolen painting as well as the saga of the family that owned it for nearly a century.

Recognizing it from his childhood living room, Benjamin Ziskind, a socially awkward quizmaster, lifts a million-dollar Chagall during a museum cocktail hour. We quickly learn that the master painter once taught art to Ben’s grandfather in a bleak Russian orphanage in the 1920s. The piece, a sketch for the famed Over Vitebsk, was a gift from the artist to his young pupil. Of additional intrigue to the museum and eventually to Ben are a series of stories written by a legendary Yiddish author (and Chagall’s onetime neighbor) that are hidden in the painting’s frame. As Ben is pursued—not by the police, oddly enough, but by Erica Frank, a museum staff member—Horn shuttles readers through three generations of the Ziskind family, loosely following the painting as it changes hands, crosses an ocean and withstands enormous turmoil. The family history, and Ben’s own covert investigation of the painting’s place within it, uncovers questions of authenticity on multiple levels and leaves him (along with his twin sister and accomplice Sara) with a heavy moral decision to make. Despite the vast oscillations in time and place, the story is remarkably coherent, and it is only in the last 50 pages that Horn runs out of gas. The romance that buds between Ben and Erica is trite and seems tacked on to the otherwise finely crafted tale. And the author’s reliance on symbolism and doubles, which is subtly effective throughout, becomes unwieldy. After an appealing journey into the past, Horn should have left her readers in the present—rather, her final chapter is a confusing and corny look into “the world to come.”

An engrossing adventure, in spite of its flaws. Fans of art and Judaic studies will particularly enjoy this well-researched work.