When Matt Santos, a veteran Hollywood character actor, gets a call about a painting allegedly looted from his family by Nazis in 1944 Budapest, his life is thrown into personal, professional, and spiritual turmoil.
The allure of the painting, by a tortured interwar artist named Ervin Kálmán, has at the beginning little to do with art (Matt is no connoisseur) or money (he's already well-off) or even adventure (he has a steady stream of parts to occupy him and an impending marriage to a model, too). What inflames his interest is a mystery: why does his father, always a remorseless opportunist, want nothing to do with the return of the now very valuable painting? The elder Santos (the name has been anglicized, or hispanicized, from Szantos) lost his mother and many relatives to the Holocaust, moved to the U.S. a decade later, and became, for his only son, an intimidating cipher: gruff, laconic, a little cruel, a man most comfortable with the toy cars he collects and fusses over and sells. Matt knows his own view may be jaundiced, and the book's strength is his constant, agonized, questing revision of his sense of who the old man is and what the implications are for his own identity. The wrangle over the painting quickly plunges him into deep waters. Soon his romance is foundering thanks to an intense attraction to his devout and lovely lawyer; his professional life is imploding; and he's plunged into spiritual confusion as, for the first time, he begins to explore, and to embrace, the Judaism that his father abandoned. There are elements here that feel overdetermined (the godly and dying rabbi who vies with him for the painting, for example) or born of box-office considerations (the Hollywood and modeling milieu), but overall, Sarvas (Harry Revised, 2008) delivers a lively, thoughtful, psychologically compelling novel about the ties that bind, and the ties that fail to.
A bit of a potboiler, but Sarvas transcends that label with skillful prose and well-drawn characters.