Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons

How much of who you are is dictated by you and how much by your status within your community? We create tidy boxes in which to tuck people but we can just as easily be tucked into a box ourselves, and not necessarily one of our own choosing. In Natasha Solomons' novel, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, main character Juliet Montague is boxed in by her community's strict rules and their perception of her but breaks free to create her own life and future.

When the novel opens in 1958 in London, Juliet is an "aguna," a woman who is neither a wife nor a widow but someone living in the limbo of in between. Her Hungarian-born husband George abandoned her and their young children, Frieda and Leonard, six years prior. And by law in her Jewish orthodox community, a wife cannot divorce a husband only a husband can divorce a wife.  So she must spend her life waiting, still married to a man who disappeared without a word, taking the one possession she valued most, a portrait of Juliet when she was nine, and condemning her to a life as the focus of gossip and pity in the community. She has been treading water for a long time, following the rules, and going through the motions but on the dawn of Juliet's thirtieth birthday, her life is about to take a different turning. Juliet has finally managed to save enough money to buy a much needed refrigerator. Instead, on her way to make her purchase, she is completely captured by a painting set up on the street. She decides to buy it with her fridge money but the artist no longer wants to sell it to her, instead offering to paint her portrait for the same amount of money. Juliet, tired of being invisible, acquiesces.

Just choosing to be seen, really and truly seen, changes the entire trajectory of her life. This is her first step into the art world, into owning a successful gallery, in choosing to forge her own destiny, and in stepping away from the society that marginalized her, causing her to drift away from her faith and its practices. As Juliet, who has not only an appreciation for and attraction to art but an instinctive understanding of it, works hard following her dream, culminating in her opening of Wednesday's Gallery, she is the object of many artists, including her own son, having her portrait painted myriad times throughout her life. Each artist defines her in his own medium but the paintings are only each a piece of her, a fleeting moment out of her life, just as her abandonment by the mysterious George turns out to be just a moment as well.

The chapters are titled using the title of a different portrait of Julia and the year it was painted. The year corresponds to the time in Juliet's life covered by the chapter. Since the chapters jump years, the story has a slightly episodic feel to it although it manages to hang together well. The gaps in time also serve to highlight the large and small ways in which Juliet changes throughout the years, not only physically but emotionally, moving away from orthodox Judaism into the much looser and more accepting London art world, away from her solitary existence and into a mutually pleasing relationship, away from subsistence and into the power of self-determination. The narrative is slow paced and descriptive and Solomons has done a good job depicting the Jewish community of the time, their rules, and the reason Juliet rebelled against both rules and community. Once upon a time, Juliet Montague might have married her Romeo/George but it is only through losing him that she has the choice and the power to define herself and build the life she wants to have. A thoroughly interesting look at a culture, art, and identity.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and the publisher for a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I did like the only novel I've read by this author. I think this would be another good one.


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