Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Very Picture of You by Isabel Wolff

Book description:
At thirty-five, Gabriella Graham—“Ella” to her family and friends—has already made a name for herself as a successful portrait artist in London. She can capture the essential truth in each of her subjects’ faces—a tilt of the chin, a glint in the eye—and immortalize it on canvas. This gift has earned Ella commissions from royals and regular folks alike.

But closer to home, Ella finds the truth more elusive. Her father abandoned the family when she was five, and her mother has remained silent on the subject ever since. Ella’s sister, Chloe, is engaged to Nate, an American working in London, but Ella suspects that he may not be so committed. Then, at Chloe’s behest, Ella agrees to paint Nate’s portrait.

From session to session, Ella begins to see Nate in a different light, which gives rise to conflicted feelings. In fact, through the various people she paints—an elderly client reflecting on her life, another woman dreading the prospect of turning forty, a young cyclist (from a photograph) who met a tragic end—Ella realizes that there is so much more to a person’s life than what is seen on the surface, a notion made even clearer when an unexpected email arrives from the other side of the world. And as her portraits of Nate and the others progress, they begin to reveal less about their subjects than the artist herself.

This story of a portrait painter working on three portraits that ultimately change her life had all the ingredients of a great read but unfortunately never really came together. Though Ella was a sympathetic character, she was also woefully incapable of seeing things that were right before her eyes. As a reader, I was frustrated that the twists that so shocked Ella were things I had figured out ages before. I also thought that the plot devices of visits and stories from clients were too similar to that of Wolff's enjoyable A Vintage Affair.

Given how much I loved A Vintage Affair, I really wanted to like this book but my overall impression after finishing was "meh". Because there were no real surprises, it was hard to share Ella's sense of surprise at every turn. It was also hard to believe Ella was able to see deeply into her clients in order to paint their portraits given her general inability to see the truth about those close to her.

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