Two haute bourgeois Austrian-Jewish women see their world upended by fin de siècle libertinism, the onset of the Nazi regime, and the theft of all they hold most dear.
Sparking off the same source material as the film Woman in Gold (2015), Albanese conjures the voices of Adele Bloch-Bauer and her niece Maria Altmann, whose lives overlapped briefly but whose biographies are forever conjoined by a work of art. Here, as in life, handsome, clever, and rich Adele is an intellectually famished, aspiring salon hostess whose tolerant husband, an uncultured but benevolent sugar-beet magnate, indulges her interest in the philosophical debates of the day (though the novel imposes no burden on readers to wrestle with them). She eventually persuades him to commission Gustav Klimt—monk-cloaked, lupine, and a notorious seducer with multiple illegitimate children—to do her portrait. It takes him three years to complete. While conscious of ugly talk rippling through the Ringstrasse—a failed and embittered applicant to Vienna's Art Academy, who will one day come to power in Germany, is glimpsed briefly at one of Adele's salon meetings—Adele is forced to pull back from their potentially scandalous relationship for reasons less social than private. By turns breathless and rueful at the memory of the erstwhile affair—“His gaze was intoxicating. I’m embarrassed to remember how little it took to keep me talking”—Adele will take up other causes and protégés. One is her young niece Maria, whose story commences in 1938 and makes for a gritty, suspenseful counterpoint (with a few historical liberties taken) to the lip-smacking linzer torte of Adele’s bildungsroman. Less worldly than her aunt (who was long dead by the time Hitler comes to power), Maria is shocked when the Gestapo turns up at her home to oversee the transfer of Jewish property into Aryan hands. But she quickly readjusts her inner compass, proving wily and doughty in ways Aunt Adele would approve. Taking the lead from her husband—an amateur opera singer hooked on female adoration—she organizes their escape, not a hot-second too soon. Though given shorter shrift here than the romance/suspense plots, Maria’s nervy and unprecedented campaign to seek restitution for her family’s looted art collection—including the shimmering Klimt portrait of Adele hidden in plain sight in Vienna’s most prestigious gallery—provides a satisfying coda: “The Nazis were inside my uncle's palais....If you’re lucky, life teaches you to survive.”
Fans of romantic suspense with an art historical bent will appreciate the vigor of Albanese’s reimagining of the family saga behind the masterpiece long regarded as Vienna’s Mona Lisa.