The English debut of a bestselling novelist, kin to Penelope Fitzgerald and Louis Begley in style and subtlety.
At eighty, Max Opass is still reeling from the death of his wife a year earlier. His two grown-up children live abroad with their own families, his son in Bolivia, his daughter in Japan: he writes awkwardly to his daughter with the news of his humdrum activities and tells her that he’s decided to have his wife’s portrait committed to paper or canvas, permanently and posthumously. So, he looks up ‘Artists’ in the Yellow Pages, picks a few for arbitrary reasons, and calls them up. He asks each if they will paint a portrait of his wife, using his five favourite photographs of her for their sole visual reference. One artist – successful and modish – intimidates him; another – an amateur raising kids by herself – prompts him to pity; a pair of art students baffle him; and a bridge-playing acquaintance turns out to have elderly hots for him. Each encounter, each portrait, is both comic and moving, like Max. As these accumulate, the reader comes to realise that Max’s grasp on who his wife really was is not so sure after all. The book oscillates calmly between being amusing and being reflective, and delivers a powerful slow punch at its close.
Agnès Desarthe began her writing life as a children’s writer, and it shows here: as in Gretta Mulrooney’s ‘Araby’, not a word is wasted and the pace is even and sure. In its sympathetic but unsentimental portrayal of a deluded old man, the book is reminiscent of Louis Begley’s work. And in her dry wit, exquisite ear for conversation and reverberating sense of more being meant than at first seems apparent, there are echoes of Penelope Fitzgerald or Hilary Mantel.