Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/
Barb has been reading The Lover’s Portrait by Jennifer Alderson
My Review: 3.5 stars out of 5
“Write what you know.” Like most vintage advice, there is a kernel of truth to that, especially if you interpret it as “take what you’ve experienced and use it to inform and color what you write”. Jennifer S. Alderson is certainly one writer who takes that advice to heart. Like her character Zelda, she was working as a website developer in Seattle, Washington, when the travel bug hit. After several international stops, she ended up in the Netherlands, pursuing a graduate program and internship in exhibition design and collection research.
In book two of this series, Alderson’s fictional doppelganger, Zelda, is counting on her internship at the Amsterdam Museum to ensure her admission to the prestigious graduate degree program in Museum Studies. But Zelda is disappointed to discover that she’s really only expected to work as a copyeditor, proofing english translations of the catalog copy. Museum curators and staff have been working for years to prepare for an exhibit of unclaimed art works recovered after Nazi occupation in World War II.
Interleaved with Zelda’s contemporary research are chapters set in 1942. In them, the history of the missing artworks unfolds against a backdrop of war, blackmail, the holocaust, and homophobia.
When Zelda offers to apply her web development skills to enhance the museum’s dreadful online site meant to showcase each work of art, her efforts are mocked and rebuffed by exhibition curator Huub Konijn. But before the new website can be taken down, they get their first hit. An elderly American, Rita Brouwer, whose family had fled Nazi-occupied Amsterdam when she was a child, came forward to claim Irises, one of the lesser-known works.
The museum administrators are delighted, and quick to publicize their first success. All that turns to dismay when another claimant to Irises emerges. Curator Huub is sure the new claim is valid, but Zelda is convinced that the picture belongs with Rita and her elderly sisters. As Zelda and her young friend/admirer Friedrich dig deeper, the stakes go from lies and greed to murder.
There were so many things to like about this book. The premise—Nazi-looted artworks hidden for decades—is both timely and terrific, and the settings were well-drawn and believable. Nazi atrocities against both Jews and homosexuals are well-documented. And we’ve all heard about families who’ve spent years trying to recover property looted by the Nazis, as well as the dramatic discovery of more than 1200 works in the apartment of reclusive German art dealer Cornelius Gurlitt. And as a thriller, the novel’s pacing unfolds perfectly, slowly at first and then racing to its dark climax.
For me, though, there were a few problems with the book. I can wish for tighter editing for the various typos and edit fails (including the instance where Huub calls someone “Renee”). I can wish that better research/editing could have caught things like the reference to a non-Jew as one of hundreds of guests at a bar mitzvah party, even though such an event would have been more likely to be a family-oriented dinner feast in the days preceding more recent American-style extravaganzas. Or that while there is a definite point made to one character wearing a wig, we never really find out why.
Some things were probably just artistic license taken in order to make a point, such as the unlikely conversation between an art history graduate student and a museum curator where they discuss the meaning of “provenance”—something that should surely have come up on the first day of her first art history class. Or the way that the Nisqually earthquake was moved forward in time…and relocated from Olympia to Seattle.
But my real disappointment with The Lover’s Portrait is with the main characters, especially Zelda. We know that she’s an intrepid woman who has traveled the world. Trying to avoid spoilers, I have to say that she comes across as immature and surprisingly gullible, especially in her romantic relationships. Despite what I would have seen as opportunities for character development and growth, I can’t point to times where Zelda has changed or matured in any way. And—while trying to avoid spoilers here— I can also say that the other “romantic” relationship between the villain and his accomplice is even less believable.
In addition, virulent opposition of curator Huub to giving Irises to its original owner and his almost fawning acceptance of the second claim is vaguely attributed to his own family’s suffering during the war. While the plight of the Netherlands Jews is well documented—of the over 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands at the beginning of the war, less than 27% survived the holocaust, and those who did almost invariably returned to find their property confiscated and possessions gone—that simply doesn’t explain why he would prefer one claimant over another.
Having said all that, I come back to the fact that this is a well-told story over all, with significant research, great settings, and good pacing. Author Jennifer S. Alderson can definitely write, and I’d look forward to reading her future books.
When a Dutch art dealer hides the stock from his gallery – rather than turn it over to his Nazi blackmailer – he pays with his life, leaving a treasure trove of modern masterpieces buried somewhere in Amsterdam, presumably lost forever. That is, until American art history student Zelda Richardson sticks her nose in.
After studying for a year in the Netherlands, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Historical Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, lying unclaimed in Dutch museum depots almost seventy years later. When two women claim the same painting, the portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history and soon finds evidence that one of the two women must be lying about her past. Before she can figure out which one and why, Zelda learns about the Dutch art dealer’s concealed collection. And that Irises is the key to finding it.
Her discoveries make her a target of someone willing to steal – and even kill – to find the missing paintings. As the list of suspects grows, Zelda realizes she has to track down the lost collection and unmask a killer if she wants to survive.
The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery draws on the author’s experiences gained while studying art history in the Netherlands and working for several Dutch museums. Before moving to Amsterdam twelve years ago, Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington.
About the author
Hi! I worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading my financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, I moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There I earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where I live with my Dutch husband and young son.
My travels and experiences color and inform my internationally-oriented fiction. Down and Out in Kathmandu: adventures in backpacking is a travel fiction adventure through Nepal and Thailand. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery is a suspenseful ‘whodunit?’ which transports readers to wartime and present day Amsterdam.
Both novels are part of an on-going yet stand-alone series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson. The third installment, another art-related travel thriller (working title: Smuggler’s Deceit) will be released in the fall of 2017.
My travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand, is now available as paperback and eBook. A must-read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to travel to – Nepal and Thailand.