Former war correspondent, scarred by Kosovo atrocities, finds healing—sexual and otherwise—through art history.
London-based reporter Charlie has weathered war zones aplenty, but now faces perhaps her greatest challenge: After taking shelter in a Kosovo cellar with Albanian women, they’re discovered by Serbian troops. She’s managed to suppress the memories of what happened that night, with frequent hot showers and essential oils, but post-traumatic stress has ruined her marriage and shut down her emotional life. Inspired by her beloved grandfather, an artist, Charlie becomes fascinated by watercolors and the paper they’re painted on, and sets out to write a biography of famed 19th-century British painter JMW Turner. Sir Alan Matheson, watercolorist to the stars and babe-magnet, offers expertise. Perhaps reflecting Holden’s nonfiction roots, as a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph (under the name Wendy Holden, unrelated to the British novelist of the same name), the history and study of papermaking showcase the liveliest writing here. Predictably, Charlie succumbs to Alan’s charisma, managing to overcome Kosovo flashbacks long enough for a sojourn at Alan’s Italian villa, where the two become torrid lovers between calls from Alan’s crazy ex-wife, Lady Sarah Matheson. Still, Charlie can’t resist investigating the suicide of Alan’s daughter, Angela. The pathologist reveals that Angela was pregnant when she died, and an embittered coroner claims the family suppressed Angela’s suicide note and the fact that Alan had abused and impregnated her. Sarah blames Angela. Angela’s boyfriend accuses Alan over Angela’s grave. As the Turner book nears completion, Charlie discounts the Angela rumors, and on New Year’s Eve, Alan gives Charlie a ring. Belatedly, Charlie probes postmortem DNA results. Sure enough, not only is Alan not the unborn child’s father, he’s not even Angela’s father. But nagging questions persist. Did Alan seduce Angela? If not, why did Angela paint visions of hellish torments and have so many piercings? And what does all this have to do with watercolors and paper?
Passable plot in a moderately engaging debut weighed down by leaden characters, mawkish prose and creaky exposition.