Pictures at an Exhibition – Camilla Macpherson

Claire and Rob’s marriage is strained to almost breaking point. The tragedy that occurred is causing Claire to drive them apart. Everything and everyone else has stepped quietly away from the couple, the only thing that Claire can now focus on is the letters that are left to her husband Rob by his grandmother, Elizabeth.

Some sixty years earlier, Elizabeth is sitting out the war in Canada because her husband is Canadian, away from the bombing, the destruction, the shortages; her only link to life back home is through the letters that her cousin Daisy sends her. Daisy embarks on a project to get her through days working in some war ministry as a typist. She decides to go the National Gallery once a month and see the painting that is displayed. As all paintings had been removed because of war, the one picture a month becomes an event. Daisy describes these in detail to Elizabeth as if she was there to see them, but also about how her life is changing. Everything is shared in the letters and it is these letters that come into the hands of Claire.

Claire uses the same focus as a project to get her through the tragedy. As Claire views the pictures monthly as Daisy has described them, she becomes all consumed in Daisy’s story as she tries to fill in the gaps with what she wants to happen. It becomes this which is the focus for Claire and she embarks on a rather dangerous encounter when her head and heart are working in opposing directions. Life cannot be directed to happen in the way Claire wants, and most of all she should know that. I am not sure whether Claire actually understands this by the end of the book?

An interesting novel which in places is rather slow, although I think this may be the intention to appreciate the plot and the paintings? The author moves between Claire and Daisy well, and I actually like Daisy more as a character, she had her flaws but was ultimately trying to survive the choices she had made as well as a war. Claire on the other hand I disliked, there was something so grating about her, as if she was the only person tragedy had ever touched and relentless blame on everyone else (she was not to blame either) was rather wearing by the end. I sensed that it would always be some sort of ulcer eating away at her for the rest of her marriage to Rob. That left me feeling rather sad.

A part epistolary novel with the letters that Daisy writes, I found this part of it interesting, as I like such novels, but felt rather cheated that I was only getting one side, I would have liked to have read the replies by Elizabeth, much more than I enjoyed Claire’s role in the book.

The clever use of technology to be able to scan a QR code to reach the paintings which are referred to at each chapter beginning was somewhat of a distraction, should I be looking at the painting as it is being described in the novel or not? In the end I looked them up at the end and I recommend the author’s website and see all the paintings there so you have an idea.

This is an interesting debut novel which perhaps does not follow a normal path, in terms of conclusion but it seemingly takes a long time to get there as well. For me the novel had simply too much going on, as if the author wanted to pack in many ideas. I would have preferred more the story set in the Second World War, the letters between the two women, and the art that was being displayed in the National Gallery after having been removed to a more secure setting. To me that has plenty of potential.

Nonetheless an interesting book and I would not rule out reading more from this author in the future.

Thank you to Amazon Vine for allowing me the opportunity to read this book. The book is published on 26 April 2012. 

I struggled with the review for this book, because it is was difficult to know where to start and finish with the review without actually giving anything away. A struggle for most book reviewers I am sure. I feel that it is woolly because that was how the book came across to me. 

As I have covered in my review, it had so much potential but it was not taken up and some parts glossed over. It certainly worked more in the 1940s, Second World War setting than it did in the present day. I think this was down to the characters and also my love of history. I found the removal of the paintings fascinating, why was more not made of that? 

That said the book did educate me in reference to art, which is an area I would say I was lacking greatly. If you follow this link you will see the paintings that are discussed in the letters.  Can you have a favourite? I like the Renoir the best, something to do with the rain and the umbrellas. The Rokeby Venus is a close second, I think because of the colours. The back drop, the blue silk she is sitting on. It draws the eye. No doubt at the time and now, the naked form also draws the eye as well. The others seem very dark and dismal in contrast. 

This is Camilla Macpherson’s first published novel. Her website can be found here. 

2 thoughts on “Pictures at an Exhibition – Camilla Macpherson

  1. My feelings were very similar to yours. I love the painting a month concept – it should be compulsory for all galleries who have things stashed away that the public never see – but the book didn’t quite live up to it.

  2. This reminds me of a novel I read last year The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean as it is also set in WWII and an art gallery. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it.

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