A terrific debut novel about the mystical and erotic power of art.
At the center of the center, as it were, is a hypothetical painting by the 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, one in which he brings all his genius to bear. The title of this painting is “The Center of the World,” and it features an astonishingly sensual portrait of Helen of Troy and Paris, with whom Helen eloped. The picture is so scandalous to 19th-century mores that it’s hidden away and believed to have been burned, but it turns up in 2003, of all places in a barn in the Adirondacks. It’s a testament to Van Essen’s control that he makes this scenario plausible, for it turns out that Cornelius Rhinebeck, the owner of a neighboring estate, was a rich captain of industry who, in the early-20th century, amassed a collection of European art, some of it acquired through questionable channels. Henry Leiden, who finds the painting, desultorily heads a small foundation and feels his life, and especially his relationship with his wife, is at an impasse, but the painting exerts an almost otherworldly influence on him. Van Essen creates a complicated narrative structure involving Leiden, Charles Grant (who posed for Paris when Turner was engaged in the painting at Petworth, the estate of the Third Earl of Egremont), Mrs. Spencer (Egremont’s mistress and the model for Helen) and the mysterious Mr. Bryce, head of a firm that arranges art sales and an aesthete who desperately wants to track down the elusive Turner painting. Actually, this masterpiece winds up turning everyone who comes in contact with it into an aesthete—and it also seems to have an almost miraculous power as an aphrodisiac.
Van Essen writes gracefully and makes accessible the issue of art as transcendence.