Sunny's bookshelf
Sunny's bookshelf photo by Judy Solomon

Online book reviews since 2011, the very best in reviewing – connecting good readers with equally good writers

Pictures at an Exhibition

Sign up to receive our latest reviews by email

We were archaeologists in our own tomb,” observes Sara Houghteling’s narrator when he and his father come home to Paris in August, 1944. Paris itself is hardly recognizable and the Berenzon Gallery, their family business, has long since been emptied of its treasures. Even the 250 paintings stowed in a nearby bank depository have vanished without a trace. During the war, the Jewish Berenzons sequestered themselves on a farm in Le Puy. They saved their lives, but lost their wealthy holdings. Pictures at an Exhibition describes what happens next, as Max is determined to prove himself to his father by recovering their paintings and restoring their gallery to its former prominence.

The Berenzons are fictional, but the background of this novel is wholly based on fact. How the Nazis stole art for themselves, burning the paintings they deemed decadent and shipping the rest back to the fatherland, has been retold by countless historians and art critics.The steps taken to trace the provenance of the art that was recovered has been well-researched, too. Houghteling has done her homework, imagining the story of one family’s quest for restitution and compensation while relating a factual account of what really was happening in Paris in the mid-1940s. I always appreciate novels that teach as well as delight. Pictures at an Exhibition does both extremely well. One of its main characters, in fact, is based on the curator of the Jeu de Paume who surreptitiously documented “the looters, the looted, and the destinations of the spoils” during World War II. Houghteling’s fictional Rose Clement owes her provenance to that heroic Frenchwoman, Rose Valland.

I also admire writers who create visual prose, who possess what literary critics like to way is a painterly touch. Like Susan Vreeland, in Lisette’s List, Houghteling frames her words and takes the reader through a gallery of prose images, the “lost museum” of Max’s mind. As Max walks the war-torn streets of Paris or when he and his father stare at a painting for hours, a reader can see the scene both literally and figuratively. Lisette’s List works like a bookend to Pictures at an Exhibition, the one tracing lost art in the French countryside, the other tracing lost art in the heart of the city, both drawing the reader into their vividly graphic artistic post-war worlds. Reading them sequentially would be like wandering through a gallery, a very special collection of “pictures at an exhibition.”

Although I genuinely recommend reading Pictures at an Exhibition, I must admit I didn’t care for the narrator himself. Max neither talks nor acts like a young man in his early twenties. His fascination for Rose is believable, but his pursuit of her, in my judgment, just doesn’t ring true. To me, Max sounds more like an anxious teen-aged girl than a man motivated by testosterone. Throughout my career I have mused about how difficult it is for a writer to get inside the head and body of a character of the opposite gender. Some do so adroitly, but more often the result is an awkward clash of traits and characteristics. That is definitely the case here. I suspect that Sara Houghteling chose Max, rather than Maxine, because of real-life Rose. But with minimal tweaking, the story would have worked equally well if her narrator had been female instead of semi-male. That said, I really did enjoy reading Pictures at an Exhibition, for the ambiance and the information, if not for the hero himself.


Pictures at an Exhibition

Sara Houghteling

Susan Vreeland

Lisette’s List

World War II


Nazi theft of paintings

Jeu de Paume

Rose Valland.

Also available by Sara Houghteling:

Add your thoughts and comments...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share this Review

Related Reviews

The Honey Jar

The Honey Jar

The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom, is Joan Schoettler’s captivating tale of a young boy’s 1920, escape from his war-torn home in Armenia.

Read More »
Billy Blaster and the Robot Army from Outer Space

Billy Blaster

BILLY BLASTER AND THE ROBOT ARMY FROM OUTER SPACE – not necessarily a graphic novel only for the younger reader. No matter how old you

Read More »

The God of  Endings

Jacqueline Hollands’s debut novel, The God of  Endings, reveals the loneliness of the life of an unwilling vampire. Jacqueline Holland’s debut novel, The God of Endings, follows

Read More »

About the Reviewer

Sign up for reviews by email

You’ll get email updates from Bookin’ with Sunny when we add a new review or blog post, and we never share your email with anyone else.

Shopping in-store Fun!

Support your local community’s economic growth by shopping for books at your independent bookstore in person, online at their website, or by phone.