Read in Ned: Art and Life in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

booksRoberta Brown-Jones, Nederland.  Last week, I attended the Conference on World Affairs, a week-long event which takes place at the University of Colorado-Boulder each year. The conference is always inspirational to attend because it provides a nexus for the exchange of ideas between people from many different fields of study (art, politics, science, music, business). Attendees have an opportunity to mingle as they participate on panels covering diverse topics. Being a book-lover and library worker, I was, of course, drawn to a panel titled “Can Books Still Change the World,” and the answer seems to still be a resounding “Yes!” The panelists and audience agreed that even books that might not be considered earth-shattering or paradigm-shifting, can change an individual’s life in remarkable and unforeseen ways.

Year-round, when they are functioning at their best, libraries also offer a place to come to be exposed to diverse programming and materials. They encourage us to move beyond our sometimes narrow knowledge and experiences and expand ourselves a little bit with each visit.

A new acquisition at the Nederland Community Library, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (2016), by Australian author Dominic Smith, is one of those books that draws the reader into its story, causing a change in perception and perspective.

The novel intertwines the stories of characters ranging across time and distance, from 17th-century Holland, to 1950s New York City, to 21st-century Sydney, Australia. The book is well-written and the intricate plot connects the characters in wonderfully complex ways. The lives of a 17th-century woman Dutch painter, a wealthy art collector, and a poor Columbia art history graduate student (and forger) intersect via a stolen 17th-century painting.

While there are shades of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch in the novel, Smith creates a narrative that is uniquely his own. The discussions of art, inherited wealth, family, and aging are beautifully written and ring true. Smith infuses all of his characters with humanity even though they are sometimes unethical and seemingly cold. Smith parallels his lovely and informative descriptions of painting by making everyday scenes visual, using brushstrokes of words, layering on meaning and nuance through a palette of language.

I particularly enjoyed the final chapter in which the 17th-century Sara de Vos storyline is run together with the 21st-century characters in such a way as to make time seem meaningless, allowing the reader to easily feel the link between such distant time periods. Smith skillfully and realistically renders the universalities of life, the ecstatic joys with “pockets of time . . . where every sense rings like a bell” and the sorrows of the human condition, often at the end of life, when “you live among the ruins of the past . . . wishing you’d been decent and loving and talented and brave.”

After reading Smith’s book, I’ll never walk through an art gallery again without remembering this passage about paintings and the connection to the past that they evoke: “Like trees, they breathed in the air around them and now exhale some of their previous owners’ atoms and molecules.” May your own favorite books and authors reach out to you from the past (and present) in a similar way.

Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.