The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Paperback, 282 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Diversion Publishing

The Empress of Tempera is the tale of Paire Anjou, a 20-year-old Maine native running from her past turned art student in New York City. Two years after fleeing her traumatic upbringing, she has successfully reinvented herself and bagged a famous artist boyfriend, has landed a job at an art gallery and become obsessed with the gallery’s main attraction, a vivid painting by a Chinese artist whose flash of fame was all too brief and mysterious. In finding herself and understanding her obsession with The Empress, Paire becomes entangled in dangerous artistic heists and embroiled in uncovering the story of an artist shrouded in as much shadowy family history as Paire herself.

All in all, The Empress reminded me of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos more than I’d hoped to admit (I’ve also reviewed that novel here), the first half of the read at least. While I’m sure that some will call this unfair, to be honest, there was the same young woman running from her past, a painting that captivated her, a link between two distinctly different time periods and cultures. There were art galleries and soliloquys on brush stroke techniques and how the painting in question, the novel’s namesake, stood apart from others of its time period. Add to that a dash of danger, a few scenes of violence and a 20th century Chinese artist (rather than 17th century Dutch) and you’ve got yourself an Empress of Tempera.

But, sigh sigh sigh, the main thread that definitively connected these two reads in my mind was that Alex Dolan’s Empress also offered the same vaguely clinical tone narrating it all, like a nasally, monotone fly buzzing in my ear throughout. The characters were borderline flat, though I could tell that they weren’t intended to be so. They had motivations, but I didn’t always buy them, and even when I did, they weren’t as affecting, dramatic or climactic as they were meant to be by a long shot. Even the effect that the painting, The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated, had on its viewers, the very foundation for this novel, seemed manufactured, inauthentic.

It didn’t seem feasible that someone would stab themselves over that painting (view spoiler). Fainting at the painting’s feet. Swooning at the sight of it. Why? Is it foretelling the coming of Christ? Is it depicting a cultural phenomenon; has it become a Mecca-like beacon for radical jihadists? SOMETHING? No, it was just a portrait of a beautiful woman, seated. That’s it; that’s all. Show’s over folks. Nothing to see here. Nothing. It was just there. And I, in turn, was just bored.

The passively omniscient narrator’s voice sounded unmistakably amateur, guessing as to why the characters’ motives were what they were. “Paire suspected Kasson had chosen this time because he knew Mayer wouldn’t be there.” Every other page it was, “She suspected this.” “She probably did it because of this.” As a reader, I felt cheated of learning what made the characters tick, a novice mistake in a writer’s hand, if you ask me. “At this point Kasson must have understood that she was not going to help him.” Smh and the soul of writing slowly dies.

Dolan’s Empress was slow and arduous for the most part. And not particularly in a poignant, character-peeling sort of way either. There were a few times that I skimmed and several times that I considered putting her down. But, like a true reader, I just had to press on, to see if a turn would re-ignite my fire. You know, I just had to go into the haunted house, even though my subconscious was telling me not to. But it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. (Does that ever?)

I won’t even delve into how the artistic heists were all borderline pointless, definitely juvenile and founded on motives shaky at best. I won’t harp on how you could run a freight train through the plausibility of them. Five days to plan and execute a heist, really? You want me to believe that? I mean, I guess. And, yawn, the damaging family history that was the thread of mystery holding the story together ended up not being worth the hype. That was all? That was nothing! I myself know people who have been through worse than that!

So, with that in mind, I started to give The Empress 3 stars, to say that it was average. But it’s only fair that I stick to my grading scale, isn’t it? And this one didn’t quite make it into the “Liked” pile. Instead, I’ll give it a “Meh” and a half. 2.5 stars. **

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“How do you know you didn’t ruin my life forty years ago?”
“From what I can see, you never looked back.”
“I looked back, believe me,” she says.
“That makes two of us.”

Firstly, let me say to those who have read this novel, I have no idea why the Goodreads summary made me think I was going to be getting this:

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For those of you who haven’t read it and are considering it, it’s not that. 🙂

**CAUTION, this review contains (mild) spoilers**
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus.

BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need allof it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when tolay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe withThe Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those).

What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were meticulously set; the story line seemed to meander on leisurely, as if on a stroll through Central Park, reminiscent of those good ole’ days—pre television—of classical writing, which left me, in a way, nostalgic.

There were times when the writing was tender, but it always stopped just shy of being emotive, often somewhere between clinical and touching. I felt I was an onlooker, a 3rd party staring in through a window on tip-toe, seeing and feeling it all second-hand, perhaps even slightly removed from that. I wasn’t made to sympathize with these characters, though I loved the fundamentals of Ellie’s narrative. She didn’t grab me, but most of the time, I didn’t mind watching her. I couldn’t tell if Smith was writing in this fashion deliberately or if he was just inexperienced with handling emotions as a writer. (I suppose a deeper foray into his works would answer this question for me definitively.) I realize that this novel was not meant to be the next great love saga—Marty and Ellie are not Rhett and Scarlett by any means—but their love affair, or rather their reactions to it, came off as unrealistic, not quite believable and definitely not emotive, possibly because that side of them was underdeveloped. Intellectual, I think is the word that I’m looking for. Their story line and the handling of it was intellectual, even when it wasn’t meant to be, and that didn’t grab me.

However, I must say that I am content with how this one ended. At various points in the novel, I hovered between giving de Vos 3.5 and 4 stars. Ultimately, I’m going with 3.5 because many of the novels I’ve given 4 or 5 stars truly moved me—or educated me in a way that will always stay with me—and this one was just shy of that. 3.5 stars ***