Reading The Last Painting of Sara De Vos feels almost sinfully indulgent.
Fiction about art is satisfying for readers and writers alike. For readers, it provides an elegant, mysterious and helpfully visual springboard for the imagination. For writers, it allows for the flexing of descriptive muscles and makes a delicious sandbox for historical storytelling. Art thrillers have met commercial and critical successes from Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series to Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Dominic Smith’s new novel The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is a story of artistic suspense in the style of Chevalier and Tartt, a beautiful literary tale with a twisting, elegant plot and regal pace. It’s like the lovechild of Geraldine Brooks’ excellent People of the Book, a fictional imagining of the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, and Elizabeth Kostova’s intricate, underappreciated The Swan Thieves, which builds a story of passion and madness around a painting.
The first thing that leaps out from The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is its thoroughly beautiful prose, lush and descriptive but precise. The settings, the characters and the subject are attractive, and even the book’s cover, right down to the texture of the jacket on the hardcover, is like a work of art.
Though it sits in a sophisticated subgenre, the novel may be even more elegant than its peers. Beyond the carefully measured prose, even the plot has an elevated feeling, its language cerebrally rewarding and sensually satisfying. In the tradition of the best literary suspense, Smith’s novel is a feast for both the imagination and the more analytical side of the brain.
The novel begins in the middle of a party in New York City in 1957. A painting is stolen, replaced by a forged copy. Smith then sweeps us back in time to the Dutch Golden Age, where Sara is navigating Amsterdam’s tricky art scene, and then forward to Sydney in the year 2000, where an art historian is preparing an exhibit on paintings by women of Sara’s era.
Smith does a fabulous job of jumping between times, establishing tangible settings and eras without dipping too far into distracting language or description. As the book moves back and forth between 1600s Amsterdam, 1950s New York and 2000s Sydney, the feel of the novel stays consistent even while we are thoroughly transported through time and place.
Smith has written three other novels which are similar to her latest in terms of sophistication, but it feels as if he is truly hitting his stride here. Though the plot jumps around, Smith writing is so clear and his details so memorable that the twists, though surprising, are easy to navigate.
While the subject is intriguing, it can also get in the book’s way. Art forgery a fascinating and sexy plot element, but Smith at times seems so devoted to writing about the minutiae of the process that the characters are momentarily forgotten. The author’s fastidiousness also lets him down just a tad in terms of plot, as his tidy construction is almost too well woven. Though the resolution is satisfying, everything falls quite neatly into place. A bit of surprising messiness would have been a welcome addition to the novel’s slick elegance.
Reading The Last Painting of Sara De Vos feels almost sinfully indulgent, a lush, magical guided tour through time by a writer that feels as much of a master of his craft as the painters he so lovingly writes about.