Publication date: May 22, 2020
Historical fiction and period pieces always have a certain magic to them. Playing with the past offers a sense of endless creation, and it makes the real world feel smaller but so much brighter. That said, I requested The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle from NetGalley with the expectation of being sent back to 1500s Rome where I could feel the strike of Raphael’s paintbrush, smell the market streets, taste the fresh herbal breads. Following Pietro, a young artist apprentice trying to please his father, I expected this book to be so much more colorful and vivid. But very little of the story dealt with him specifically, despite it being told from his first-person perspective.
I have very low expectations for historical realness given how much I adore the genre. As long as there’s era-appropriate clothing, slight speech differences, and a carriage or two, I’m pleased. However, I didn’t feel transported back to 1500s Rome, and that’s my main difficulty with this book. Artists see life differently than the average person or character, so the world should look as contrasted, vivid, and colorful as that character would see it. The story should be told from the tip of a paintbrush, but it was clearly told from the tip of a pen. And 1500s Rome was a society booming with color and life, both good and bad but all-around intriguing. There were so many opportunities for the setting to be really shown, but I instead believe that this story could have taken place in any time period if it didn’t feature 16th-century artists.
Along similar lines, the characters and their dialogue didn’t feel era-specific. I don’t expect true dialogue of the 1500s because not only would that be boring and hard to read, but it would take away from the story. But a lack of any semblance of this being a period piece as seen from the modern language also takes away from me believing this story.
Combining modern-feeling characters with their unpainted emotions created a deep rift between me and them. I knew what all the characters felt, for the most part, but I couldn’t feel with them or understand them. I don’t understand Pietro’s pain after Luca, I don’t understand Pietro’s undying jealousy, and I don’t believe he truly felt how he did toward Raphael. I can’t feel the swelling love and crippling heartache that is written in this story. The descriptions and unraveling of their emotions and thoughts never pierced the surface level of what could have run much deeper into the story.
Given Pietro’s place in the story, as the sole narrator with a first-person perspective, he should have had more to do with the plot, which can essentially boil down to a Romeo and Juliet trope. He is placed in the story only to feel the actions of the other characters, and I’m left wondering why he was chosen as the narrator. Pietro isn’t even mentioned in the book’s blurb despite him being the central character. He feels like a Nick in The Great Gatsby, the outsider looking in, but he lacks the power and the plot center that Nick was. The story could have easily been told from a different perspective and the plot wouldn’t have changed. Touching back on his purpose as ‘the feeler,’ his main emotion is jealousy, and he feels it for most characters in the story. Overwhelming at times, I wish he had grown from his jealousy more as so many years had passed since we first meet him. In the beginning, especially, his jealousy made me slightly uncomfortable because of how young he was and how quickly sexual his first love interest was. But that leans into the pacing being slightly off as the chapters were chopped into such small segments that things just seemed to happen without reason or introduction.
This story was unpredictable only because there wasn’t time to connect the events given the brevity of the chapters and their segments and the glimpses of the true story that are told.
I do admit that I truly wanted to enjoy this book because the idea of 16th-century artists and impassioned love sounded enchanting. The plot, overall, was also interesting in how it progressed; I only wish the chapters offered more time to feel the plot and live in it.