When Juliet Montague’s husband George leaves her, she’s trapped in a cycle of Jewish not-quite-widowhood. She can’t divorce him without his presence, as under Jewish law the man must divorce his wife, but until he dies, assuming she knows about it, she can’t marry or really even look at another Jewish man. In the conservative Jewish community of her parents, she’s just not treated in the same way as other women, made worse by the fact that she’s spent seven years as a single mother putting practicalities ahead of her artistic nature. When she turns thirty and goes out to buy a refrigerator, which she’s dutifully saved towards, she is instead captivated by an artist on the street who asks to paint her picture for the same cost. Juliet falls into a world of artists in 1960’s London, enriching her life immeasurably.
What this book is really about is how Juliet finds herself – still loving her children as much as ever, but redeeming her own identity as a person. She lost it so easily when her husband left simply because she had to. When she meets the artist, Charles Fussell, she remembers what she felt before she’d met George and regains a part of herself that she lost with him. Through meeting other artists, and eventually embarking on a love affair, she begins to re-discover who she is. This is cleverly symbolized by the fact that each artist she meets tends to paint her, capturing little bits of Juliets throughout her life.
It’s easy to relate to Juliet as a character. She’s not quite a pariah, but she is ostracized all the same. Her parents love her, as she loves her children, but she doesn’t fit in. It’s uncomfortable for her but it’s excruciating in some ways for her children, Frieda and Leonard. They are mocked by the other children for their mother’s status and because they’ve lost their father. Their eventually paths in life diverge but reflect how that struggle helps to form their futures. Frieda becomes a very traditional, strict Jew herself in the vein of her grandparents, while Leonard embraces his mother’s artistic leanings wholeheartedly.
As for Juliet, she does seem to find pieces of herself as she goes along. I got the feeling that wife and motherhood swept her away and her identity was lost to a degree in the search of promoting other people’s happiness. It becomes clear fairly early on why she started hiding pieces of herself away, but when George leaves she simply can’t gain the freedom that might have helped her on that journey sooner.
I’d probably only say that this book was a little bit slow; I actually read the whole book in one day, but split up by several other things. I never really felt glued to the page and I would have been able to set it aside for longer if I’d had to. It’s more of a contemplative book, rather than one with a fast-moving plot.
I enjoyed The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I did Mr Rosenblum’s List. I’ll definitely continue looking out for future books by this author, though. She has a lot of potential and she writes beautifully, with compelling characters. Recommended.
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