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The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons - Review

Sunday, October 18, 2020


I can't remember where I heard of this book, but it appealed to me and it was available in my library system, so I requested it to come to my local library and then picked it up. I haven't been in there since early March and it was quite weird. I could only walk one way round the library and a lot of the non fiction was jumbled up and in the wrong place. The reservations were on a shelf in the middle of the library. I did have a look at some other books, and wasn't sure if that meant they would need to be wiped or quarantined, so I left them out on the shelves in case they did need to be. I got my reservation and went to the desk, but the librarian couldn't touch the book, so I had to kind of reach under the screen between us so she could have access to the barcode. I find that quite odd really - if I'd known I wouldn't have put it on the desk but held it, open, but the librarian didn't tell me to do that. Oh well, I suppose it's just more weird things in this pandemic. The library was quite empty; I hope people do still use it so it doesn't get closed. 

Anyway, the book. It's set in the sixties and is about Juliet Montague and her children and family. At the beginning of the book she is turning thirty years old. She's got the day off from her job in her father's spectacle factory, so she goes from her home in Chislehurst into London and there she meets a painter, Charlie. She commissions a painting of herself from him.

She already had a painting of herself, aged nine, when an artist bartered a portrait of Juliet in exchange for some glasses with her father. But her husband, George Montague, took the painting with him when he disappeared on Juliet's birthday eight years earlier. George was a Hungarian war refugee and gambled away a lot of the family's money. When he took the painting he also took some money and some premium bond certificates. 

Juliet is from a Jewish family, and since George disappeared she is an aguna, a woman neither married nor divorced. She can't get a religious divorce because only men can divorce women in Judaism, but she's not free to start another relationship. She is more or less shunned by the community, and doesn't go to synagogue anymore. Her mother despairs, but her dad is very fond of her and becomes very proud of her.

Through Charlie, Juliet meets other artists and opens a galley in London to exhibit them. Over the years, she does better and better at this, much preferring the job to working for her dad. She meets ex war artist, Max, a reclusive figure with whom she starts a relationship - something which she asks the children to keep from their grandma. 

The book is told in vignettes, spanning maybe a year each. The book itself concentrates mostly on the sixties, but towards the end are parts from the 80s and the noughties. Juliet meets a succession of artists, all of whom want to paint her, and the stories of all these paintings are told within the chapters. I liked this - it's a good way to make a novel span so much time, and I liked most of the artists Juliet came into contact with, even if I felt like she was a bit of an unlikely muse. 

The first half of this book REALLY dragged for me. I can't really say why, but I wasn't enjoying it at all. My partner told me to read something else but I was determined to finish it. The second half picked up a lot. I liked the relationship between Juliet and Max, and I liked the odd point of view we got from Leonard, Juliet's son. I liked Juliet and sympathised with her, and didn't blame her for never going to shul with her dad. 

I liked the fact that the family were Jewish and how this impacted their lives and thoughts, but the book wasn't about them being Jewish per se. I liked all the little bits of the culture that were present in the narrative, and how Juliet often recognised this in other people. There's a brilliant bit with a character who has to be based on Brian Epstein, I loved him. 

I would read something else by Natasha Solomons for sure, even though I felt like the first half dragged here for me. I have recommended this book to my book group because I think a few people there would enjoy it. I'm giving it four out of five because the second half made up for a slow first half. 

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