For those who love art and books, this is a match made in heaven. Shortlisted for the 2017 Australian Indie Book Awards, this novel by Dominic Smith is comprised of three interwoven story lines, which all come together in a gripping climax. Firstly, there is the story of Sara de Vos, the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St Luke in Holland. Her story starts in Amsterdam in 1636, where she paints alongside her artist husband, Barent. Tragedy hits their little family, and in the dark years that follow, Sara paints a dramatic piece of landscape art entitled 'At the Edge of a Wood'.
Fast forward to 1950s New York, and this piece of art hangs over the bed of a Dutch-American lawyer, Marty de Groot, who has inherited the artwork. Marty is immensely wealthy, thanks to family money, but a frustrated lawyer who is struggling to make partner. His wife is depressed following two miscarriages, and tries to distract herself from her grief by throwing herself into social functions. One night, while hosting a charity event, the artwork disappears mysteriously from the house.
Meanwhile, struggling Australian art student Ellie Shipley is living and working in New York, scraping together a living as an art restorer, while writing her dissertation about Dutch women painters of the Golden Age. She's approached by a dealer from the art underworld, who asks her to paint a forgery of At the Edge of the Wood. Happy for the money, she agrees; but this decision will haunt her for the rest of her days.
Wind forward the clock to the year 2000, and 60-year-old Ellie is now living in Sydney and working as an art curator. As she goes about organising her latest exhibition of female Dutch painters, she receives word that two versions of At the Edge of the Wood have surfaced - one in New York and one in Holland. Both are being sent to Sydney for the exhibition, where they will undergo rigorous testing, to determine the original versus the fake. Ellie is on the brink of professional ruin, should her secret be revealed.
The Last Paining of Sara de Vos is impressively written, very well researched, and easily retains the interest of the reader. The novel is fast-paced and interesting, thanks to the plot lines that shift between time periods and geographic locations. Sometimes, stories that cross multiple periods like this can become confusing, but definitely not in this case. The book was structured clearly, and each of the three stories was gripping and satisfying in itself. I love a book where I learn something new, so I appreciated the insights into the art world, especially 17th century Holland. I'll be interested to see if this book wins the Indie Award - there is stiff competition from The Good People (Hannah Kent), Truly, Madly, Guilty (Liane Moriarty) and Where the Trees Were (Inga Simpson).