The Woman Who Heard Color

Written by Kelly Jones
Review by Helene Williams

Lauren O’Farrell’s job in present-day New York as an “art detective” is to track down pieces lost during World War II; often those works were stolen from Jewish families or removed from collections after being branded by the Nazis as degenerate art. Lauren’s current investigation may lead her to information about someone who participated in these atrocities, someone long-rumored to be a Nazi collaborator, someone who may have kept a selection of the famous art to fund a lavish post-war lifestyle.

Those are the rumors about Hanna Schmid, a German country girl who ended up marrying into the revolutionary Munich art world that included Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and other artists from the Bauhaus and Blue Rider movements. Lauren hopes to validate these rumors when she interviews Isabella Fletcher, Hanna’s octogenarian daughter. What she gets, over the course of two long days in Isabella’s high-rise Central Park apartment, is a wealth of information about art history, and the incredibly risky actions of a brave woman doing her best to survive during the war.

Chapters alternate between Lauren’s and Hanna’s perspectives, with an occasional interlude from Isabella’s point of view. The story, however, clearly belongs to Hanna, who begins her working life as a maid in the home of a major art dealer, and then evolves into an influential figure in the art world in her own right. Along the way there’s music, education, and love, until the rising power of the Nazi party takes over everything and everyone she cares about. This well-crafted story offers a nuanced portrait of life between wars, then behind Nazi lines, and is based on true stories of people who risked everything to keep the German culture of the time from perishing forever.