This novel has been on several prize lists, and I'd noticed that it was set in the art world, which appealed. So I sent off for it, and I'm very glad I did. It's one of those novels that you can lose yourself in, and at 472 pages, it's a gift that keeps on giving...
The title is the name of a picture with an extraordinary past, but which has been lost. At the beginning of the novel Annie McDee finds it in a junk shop, and thinks it will make the perfect birthday present for Robert, the man she's been seeing. Unfortunately
, the wretched Robert doesn't turn up for the delicious meal Annie has cooked for him; he's let her down, just like all the other men in her life have - but particularly dreadful Desmond, whose loss she especially mourns. But at least it means she gets to keep the picture.
Incidentally, there's an interesting twist to the narration here - because the picture itself takes its turn at telling the story. It's a bit of a tease, though; the tale only unfolds gradually. Meanwhile we learn about all sorts of other people who have been, or are, involved with the picture. I said that Annie finds the picture at the beginning, but actually that's not true. At the beginning, the picture is about to be sold by Earl Beachenden at Monachorum Auction Rooms. It's expected to make gazillions, and incredibly wealthy (and seriously dodgy) people are falling over themselves to buy it. It's all set to rescue the fortunes of the auction house, and in particular, of the earl. But then it all goes horribly wrong when the picture is stolen... And then we go back to Annie, and gradually find out exactly how the picture came to be in the auction room - and where it has been during the lost years.
There are so many things to enjoy about this book. There's a tender love story; there's a whodunnit, and a who's-doing-it; there's a lot of interesting - if rather horrifying - information about the art world; but above all, there's a range of grotesque, charming, and very funny characters.
It's set in a world of wealth and privilege that's almost unimaginable for most of us - but it's a world that the author knows very well, because she is the chair of the board of the National Gallery, and she comes from the Rothschild banking family. Sometimes it shows. Several of the characters are poor, but their poverty doesn't ring true. Earl Beachenden, for instance. Certainly, he's lost his ancestral pile. But he's still the boss of a prestigious auction room and his daughters all go to private school. So it's a bit hard to believe that he has to steal stale bread rolls form buffet lunches so that he'll have something to eat in the evening. And sometimes the dialogue is a little bit clunky.
But that aside, this is a hugely enjoyable book which made me laugh and kept me absolutely gripped. And the ending was the kind where you almost find yourself cheering. Strongly recommended.