Pictures at an Exhibition
A young man’s attempts to please a father he perceives as disparaging and indifferent form the core of this debut novel. The setting is World War II Paris. Max Berenzon, the son of an eminent gallery owner, has grown up reciting, with his eyes shut, the intricate details of the paintings hanging in each room, and trying without success to demonstrate that he has his father’s business sense and eye. After the war, with their gallery and home looted and in ruins, Max sets about to recover as much as he can of his father’s collection, in another attempt to earn approval. When the Berenzons, who are Jewish, fled Paris at the time of the occupation, Rose, the gallery assistant, had gotten a job in the Jeu de Paume, where art looted from vanished Jews, including the Berenzons, was housed. Viewed by many as a collaborator, Rose (based on a real person) was actually documenting the thefts for the Resistance, and for the rightful owners. Back in postwar Paris, Max searches not only for the art stolen from his family, but for Rose, with whom he has long been infatuated. In the process, he comes to a deeper understanding of love, loyalty, and survival.
Houghteling is at her best describing the nightmarish world of Paris in this grim era, where everyone, Jew or Gentile, seems as fragmented as figures in a painting by Picasso. Though this is a well-crafted, smart read, Houghteling occasionally weakens the narrative in her desire to share the Fulbright research she did on the subject of Nazi-purloined art. This results in passages that occasionally seem more like an essay than a fictional treatment. Still, a strong debut overall.