David Copperfield at least got to wonder if he would be the hero of his own life. Poor Max Berenzon doesn’t stand a chance.
The mild-mannered, naive son of a wealthy Parisian art dealer who boasts both Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse among his clients, Max dreams of one day working side by side with his father. Dear old dad, however, announces that teenage Max doesn’t have the hunger and that he cannot “in good conscience” leave his only son the family business. Instead, he hires a promising Louvre curator named Rose Clement.
Max promptly gets a crush on the lovely 21-year-old, and spends much of the first half of Sara Houghteling’s debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, pursuing (without apparent success on either front) the affections of both Rose and his dad.
Then World War II puts a crushing end to both the Berenzons’ life of wealthy sophistication and Max’s desultory medical studies. The Jewish family spends the war hiding in a farmhouse cellar in the south of France.
When they return after the liberation of Paris in 1944, they discover that their home, gallery, and bank vault have been emptied of a fortune in paintings. Max vows to get them back for his father, although his initial efforts look more likely to damage himself than locate any art. Then, to his surprise, he discovers that Rose holds the key.
Today, anyone familiar with Lynn Nicolas’s history “The Rape of Europa” already knows who swiped the Berenzon collection. But Rose was determined that the pillaging of France’s Jewish art treasures by the Nazis wouldn’t go unrecorded. In a daring move, she remained at the Louvre throughout the Nazi occupation of Paris, turning herself “into a registry of lost art.”
She was able to let the Resistance know which train cars were loaded with looted masterpieces, so that they didn’t bomb them (and, near the end, could keep the trains from leaving France at all).
For years, Rose dreamed of returning the art to its rightful owners. “At the time, we could not grasp that this would be difficult for the most horrific of reasons,” she tells Max, who is still besotted with her despite the shorn hair and male uniforms she adopted to avoid attention from German soldiers.
Thanks to memory exercises his father did with him every night, Max has a mental catalog of every painting ever sold by the Berenzon Gallery. But concrete proof would be unobtainable were it not for Rose, who nonetheless feels her years of undercover work were almost futile.
“My life is a life of negativity,” she tells Max. “I see my future in negatives, a future of what I did not do, what I did not find, what I could not explain, what I could not answer.”
The novel gets its title from the famous symphony by Mussorgsky, which, appropriately enough, immortalizes vanished artwork. And Houghteling has done her research: Most of the paintings Max is searching for in the novel are still missing today.
But when the novel veers outside the realm of art, it struggles. A subplot involving a concentration camp survivor who takes in Max is awkwardly woven in, and another one involving a family secret behind a Manet still life feels rushed in at the end.
Also, Rose – modeled after the real-life Rose Valland – is simply the most compelling character in “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and the plot gets muddled in an effort to keep the focus on Max.
For example, the book essentially skips World War II. That decision makes sense on a historical level, because Max and his family likely would not have survived had they stayed in Paris. But the suspense gets sucked out of the novel faster than a Slurpee through a crazy straw by having Rose detail her heroics after the fact.
At times, the novel reads like a history lesson, as Rose tries to compress the Nazis’ systematic looting into three or four pages of exposition.
While she isn’t yet in firm control of the fictional aspects of her story, Houghteling is an intelligent writer with a command of her chosen historical corner. She does an excellent job of portraying the varying degrees of complicity of Paris’s remaining art dealers and leads a reader with a sure hand through that closed and rarified world. Also, Max’s misadventure-laden efforts to retrieve his father’s paintings hold a reader’s attention and remain grounded enough to avoid thriller territory.
As Houghteling writes in an afterword, even though Rose Valland was a valiant, stubborn woman whose heroics won her the Legion of Honor, her autobiography is out of print and, by the end of her life, she was brushed aside by a society eager to “forget the past.”
“Pictures at an Exhibition” offers readers a chance to get to know her, if only from a distance. I just wish it had put her front and center.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.