A woman reels from the sudden loss of her only child in 17th-century Amsterdam; a middle-aged blue blood romances a much younger grad student in 1950s Manhattan; and in turn-of-the-millennium Sydney, a sixtysomething professor confronts a shameful secret from her past. The object that connects them across centuries and continents is a modest, mostly uncelebrated work of art: a delicate winter landscape, “stark and forlorn,” whose almost mystical status as both a talisman and a time portal provides the prism through which Dominic Smith’s lovely, quietly resonant fourth novel is told.
The painting’s rightful owner is a man named Marty de Groot, a wealthy but unmoored attorney straight out of a John Cheever story who is only mildly bothered when he first realizes that At the Edge of a Wood has stealthily gone missing from his Upper East Side town house, replaced by a clever canvas impostor. After all, it’s only one of many similarly somber pieces that have been in his family for generations, and the happy reversals in his personal life—“not luck, exactly, but an upswing”—that follow its disappearance lead him to wonder whether the loss is actually some odd kind of serendipity. Still, a needling curiosity moves him to hire a private detective whose inquiries point to an unlikely culprit: Ellie Shipley, a young Australian expat with a terminally unfinished Ph.D. thesis and a knack for creating note-perfect reproductions (she prefers the word copy to forgery).
Marty and Ellie’s subsequent entanglement—interwoven with vivid glimpses into the life of the enigmatic Dutchwoman whose work gives The Last Painting of Sara de Vos its muse—is the narrative’s heart. And if the book’s more current segments don’t resonate quite as fully as the ones set earlier, it mostly feels like a testament to Smith’s singular gift for conjuring distant histories. In his hands, the damp cobblestones and canals of 1600s Holland and the shabby gentility of Eisenhower-era New York feel as real and tactile and tinged with magic as de Vos’ indelible brushstrokes. A–
OPENING LINES “The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space. Plucked from the wall right above the marital bed during a charity dinner…”