The Last Painting of Sara de Vos moves, or rather slithers, between the 17th century Netherlands, the 20th Century New York, and Sydney at the cusp of the 21st century. Eleanor Shipley, an art historian, is entwined to the fates of a painting, At the Edge of a Wood, and struggles to erase her moral lapses of the past when she had copied the original on request. But little did she know that the owner, who had held it in his family for many generations, would come into her life out of nowhere, like a headlight climbing an uphill slope which descends soon after its peak, and disappears like a slimy fish out of her hands, leaving her to mourn what remained of her life. It is the lives of three contemporaries, which get connected through an invisible thread of fate, pivoted much above their own world and reach, which carry the narration on their shoulders.
Sara de Vos, the first woman to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke in Holland, punishably suffers in her marriage to Barent when their daughter Kathrijn dies of plague. Her husband’s melancholia takes over and he could do nothing but disappear to escape the torment of living. As Ellie, who hails from Australia, settles in America she looks at the opportunity of copying de Vos’ believed-to-be last painting as a high point in her disappointing career and meticulously warms the paints, and strokes the brushes to create her own masterpiece.
The rich and suave Marty de Groot, the right owner, discovers to his horror that the copper tinted nails don’t shine as well as they used to, and hires a private detective to track down the thieves. His own transgressions over the boundaries of his love life hadn’t led to anything yet, but it was only a matter of time till he, after many a meetings with Ellie in museums and restaurants, succumbed to her impressions. The guilt gnaws at both of them, and makes them come face to face in Sydney, where, as a proof of fate’s torturous nature, the original and the copy both end up lying next to each other in front of an X-ray machine.
The mysteries of who de Vos was, and what all she painted, and when she died, kept Ellie going on; while the kisses of happiness on de Vos’ lips infused her with life and a will to survive; but for Marty it was guilt and a token of happiness that fired up his eighty-five year old frame.
The prose is lathered with, sometimes overflowing, adjectives. The end, which is cinematic, and varnished with the laden feelings of a lost being found, doesn’t stand out like a clear marked-out frame but fades away like a color disappearing on a dry canvas, leaving behind a trail of somber fulfillment. The novel is poignant, and not once does one feel a paragraph being stretched too long or a sentence being clipped too short. The descriptions of de Vos and Ellie mixing their paints, styling their canvases, hunched over their easels, with a sniffing nose to gauge artwork, and subtle determinations to break out of their chains, take you to the world of painting without pouring in too much technicality or the unnecessary. The characters, each of the three main ones, have a background to be acknowledged and each action or thought takes root in their experiences and seems to grow logically out of their motivations. Though Ellie doesn’t realize this, but the reader should draw the parallels between the lives of de Vos and Ellie. But was Ellie correct in naming At the Edge as de Vos’ last painting? Or does another old, weathered canvas hold its secrets in a dirty attic?
This is a novel which you cannot put down without feeling a sense of joy for Ellie, pity for Marty, and a deep, overwhelming sympathy for Sara de Vos.
Nikhil Sharma is a technology professional who has discovered a new found interest in literature, predominantly non-fiction history, over the last few years. He lives in Mumbai.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Sarah Chricton Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.