Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends medical school, reserving his true passion for his father's beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant, Rose Clement. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding. They return in 1944 to find that their priceless collection has vanished: gone are the Matisses, the Picassos, and a singular Manet of mysterious importance.
Madly driven to recover his father's paintings, Max navigates a torn city of corrupt art dealers, black marketers, Resistants, and collaborators. His quest will reveal the tragic disappearance of his closest friend, the heroism of his lost love, and the truth behind a devastating family secret.
Written with tense drama and a historian's eye for detail, Houghteling's novel draws on the real-life stories of France's preeminent art-dealing familes and the forgotten biography of the only French woman to work as a double agent inside the Nazis' looted art stronghold.
Pictures at an Exhibition conjures the vanished collections, the lives of the artists and their dealers, the exquisite romance, and the shattering loss of a singular era. It is a work of astonishing ambition and beauty from an immensely gifted new novelist.
I have a special (and personal) interest in France during World War II, and also in art and art theft, so I was very engaged with this book. Its weak feature is the fictionalization aspect. The characters are based on real people, and I wondered if it wouldn't have worked better as straight non-fiction. The author did a great deal of pains-staking research, and that pays off in telling the story; actually, that makes the book worthwhile. But the fictional characters and their individual story didn't quite come alive for me. I did listen through to the end, (and felt a little confused about a plot point at the end) but I probably wouldn't give 4 stars if it weren't for my special interest in the book's historical basis.
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This book was exceptionally boring. I began by attempting to read the book but lost all strength and became unable comprehend the words. So after that one page I switched to the audio book which made it possible to passively let the material flow in and straight back out of my head. Had it not been the pick of my book club I would have gladly given up. The writing lacked any emotional depth. Despite having both Jewish and French culture in my family back ground I did not connect to the story or characters.