Longing and loss permeate Houghteling’s debut, which focuses on the world of Parisian art dealers before and after the Nazi occupation.
Between the wars, Daniel Berenzon was one of the most successful gallery owners in Paris, numbering Picasso and Matisse among his clients. His son Max, the engagingly modest narrator, is the victim of his father’s success. In 1939, the 19-year-old hopes to join his father in the business, but Daniel says no. The pampered youth, though knowledgeable, is not hungry enough, and he hires the beautiful young Rose Clément, a Louvre curator, as his latest apprentice. Max yearns for his father’s approval and Rose’s love throughout the novel, but he makes little headway. Rose is affectionate, but work always comes first, and during the occupation, while the Berenzons, assimilated Jews, are being sheltered by a Protestant farmer in central France, she remains in Paris and strives heroically to offset the Germans’ looting by becoming “a registry of lost art.” Houghteling has immersed herself in the history of the period, and her love of these paintings shines through. But though Rose’s story is the most dramatic, it is Max who’s front and center, and this makes for some awkwardness. Back in liberated Paris in 1944, Max sets his heart on tracking down his father’s paintings, all lost; his hopes are constantly dashed, but his search is exciting and the author is finely attuned to the dealers’ folkways, their sophistication sometimes masking collaboration with the enemy and outright thievery. It is not only the paintings that have gone missing; so too have thousands of deported Jews. Max is sheltered by a friendly Hasid, an Auschwitz survivor, and they both try to track down loved ones, but again there is some awkwardness as the author integrates the two searches. The ending, with a years-after epilogue, is a mess.
An uneven first novel.