A portrait painter becomes enmeshed in her subjects’ secrets and lies.
Ella, who at 35 has secured her niche as London portraitist to the wealthy and titled, has a knack for exposing the cloaked emotions of the people she paints. As the novel begins, she’s just received an e-mail from her once-revered father, John, who left Ella and her ballerina mother, Sue, 30 years ago for another woman. She’s debating whether to see John when her half-sister Chloe, finally recovering from an affair with a married man, wins a portrait from Ella at a charity auction. Ella is thus assigned to paint Chloe’s charismatic fiancé, Nate, an American employed by a London private-equity firm. At first Ella despises Nate—based on an overheard cell-phone call, she assumes he’s two-timing Chloe—but as he sits for her, she finds herself, to her dismay, falling for him brushstroke by brushstroke. As she helps Sue plan the myriad details of Chloe’s upcoming wedding extravaganza, her mother confesses that not only was John unfaithful, he had a child with the other woman. As she ponders this revelation of a sister she never knew she had, Ella is beset by other dilemmas. One of her subjects, a Frenchwoman, is not only cynical about the 40th birthday gala her much older husband is planning for her, but squeamish about being captured on canvas—could it be because she is having an affair? Another, an M.P. up for re-election, may have been the hit-and-run driver who killed Grace, a bicyclist whom Ella has been commissioned to memorialize in a posthumous painting from photographs. Wolff builds tension by skillfully balancing multiple plotlines of betrayal, deception and remorse. Although Ella’s close scrutiny of her subjects elucidates their characters, her own personality, thanks perhaps to her role as voyeur, remains opaque—not a winning trait in a protagonist.
Any hope of profundity is further undermined by a maudlin ending worthy of a Hugh Grant movie.