In this historical novel, Gilmar (The Jew and the Pope, 2012) addresses the power of art and its connection to the brightest and darkest aspects of human nature.
Where some would strive to forget their tragedies, professor Lily Rushkin (formerly known as Ilsa Petrov) has spent a lifetime holding onto hers. In her classes, she tries to impart her students an understanding of the true meaning of art throughout history—something with which she’s all too familiar. Her own family’s substantial art collection was lost to Nazi plundering during World War II, leaving her without so much as a record to make a claim on the stolen property. But decades later, her childhood notebook, which includes a complete catalog of the collection, reappears. The FBI intends to use it to finish the search and return what rightfully belongs to her. But for Lily, those paintings have just as much blood soaked into their canvasses as they do beauty. She digs back into her own past, recalling her flight from the Nazis and the trials she faced with her brother, Abraham, from Odessa, Ukraine, to Paris and beyond, meeting smugglers, revolutionaries, and chaos along the way. This is a heartfelt story from beginning to end, with a clear reverence for both the paintings described and the eras in which they appear. The choice to begin Lily’s story in Ukraine is also refreshing, as it’s an uncommon setting for WWII stories in American fiction and lends a unique perspective to the novel as a whole. Unfortunately, the story’s emotional depth is sometimes undercut by stilted prose, particularly in dialogue, which may take some readers out of the story: “They are bed sheets from the barracks. People asked me why I was sleeping without them. No one suspected I was taking bed sheets to protect this work of art.” Nevertheless, the novel is compelling; the plot moves quickly, and there’s enough intensity to keep readers turning pages.
A tale with a worthy subject but sometimes-flawed execution.