Second-guessing, self-absorption and gestures toward love and redemption, set against the backdrop of New York’s art auction scene.
The ingredients of Wall Street Journal reporter Hughes’s first novel promise delicious, intellectual entertainment: romance, sexual betrayal, sumptuous art and music and a supporting cast of eccentric characters. Alas, high-minded ambition—a murky point about the connections between art, commerce and spirituality perhaps, or an attempted reprise of late-Victorian subtleties—gets in the way. With the exception of a few too-brief scenes, the novel centers on the inner lives, and repetitive inner monologues, of its hesitant characters. Most of the action happens offstage: Five years earlier, Claire, a 30-something art auctioneer, divorced Peter, an antique-furniture dealer, after he left her for a man, Toby, also an art maven. As the story opens, Peter has left Toby for Sean, a police detective. Claire puts together an auction and goes on a few near-dates with Peter’s brother Frank, a brooding ex-priest and academic on sabbatical to write a business advice book, Teresa Avila, CEO. Everybody struggles toward self-forgiveness and love, but for pages at a time, little happens. Indeed, the characters are so absorbed in their own circular thoughts that when they are together they apologize to each other for drifting off in the middle of conversation, even as they dwell on their tortured isolation. As befits her profession, Claire has a sharp eye and cool hand. Through her, we hear many gorgeous, lovingly detailed descriptions of paintings and some very funny and insightful remarks on the people who are selling them. But once she looks inward, humor and insight all but disappear. The reach for a romantic climax is too little, too late.
Carefully nuanced, but to no great end.