A Boston debutante becomes an artist in Europe, experiencing love and loss, in this debut historical novel.
In 1953, Peter Wells discovers that painter Maude Driscoll is the subject of a John Singer Sargent portrait spotted in a Washington, D.C., showroom. Noting to the clerk that he has “more than an artist collector connection” with Driscoll, Wells wonders, based on portrait details, “How in blazes did she get presented to Queen Victoria?” The novel then shifts to Boston, 1889. Driscoll just misses seeing off her best friend, Lillie Doty, who’s moving with her struggling family to California. The more affluent Driscoll soon attends Wellesley, with her British roommate eventually taking her to London (and that court presentation). Staying on to paint in Paris, Driscoll embarks on an affair with her roommate’s brother, who’s killed just as she learns that she is pregnant. Driscoll gives up her son for adoption and continues painting. At the outbreak of World War I, she returns to the United States for a brief marriage that turns out to be a sham and then relocates to Italy, where she eventually meets, then marries, another American. She resides in Washington for a spell and then returns full-time to Italy upon her husband’s death. She next marries an Italian baron and deals with the Nazi occupation. Throughout, Doty writes letters to Driscoll and then her own daughter, Evie. The back story of Wells, who first meets Driscoll in Paris in 1918 and marries Evie in the World War II era, is also unspooled. Fabris opens this novel with great flair, with that beckoning portrait and the touching heartbreak of girlfriends from different classes torn apart. Unfortunately, plot overload soon ensues, given that Driscoll marries many men, Doty writes a lot of missives (relating a rather humdrum life), and Wells has an array of highly fortuitous encounters (meeting not only Driscoll and Evie, but also saving Doty’s brother while a soldier in Europe). While the narrative always remains enjoyable, its key characters, particularly Driscoll, become engulfed rather than illuminated by this surfeit of details.
A sweeping, ultimately dizzying saga about a painter and her multiple marriages.