Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

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Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson
Buy Pictures at an Exhibition from Amazon.co.uk

Buy Pictures at an Exhibition from Amazon.com

Genre: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Susmita Chatto
Reviewed by Susmita Chatto
Summary: Claire and Rob are watching their marriage crumble after a tragedy tears them apart. Can a tale from World War Two help them to reunite?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 392 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Arrow
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099560449

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A story designed around the display of individual paintings at the National Gallery during World War Two held immediate appeal for me. Alas, Claire and Rob, the central characters in the novel, did not. Claire’s extreme irrationality is jarring even within the context of the ordeal she has endured. Rob seems inconsiderate, clearly due to the barrage of irrationality he is having to live with on a daily basis. But while that is understandable, I did worry that I might be reading a novel that contained no likeable characters.

Fortunately, the appearance of Daisy, in the form of letters she wrote to her cousin Elizabeth, Rob’s grandmother, cures that problem. Perhaps part of Daisy’s appeal is that she is open to us in the first person, whereas Rob and Claire can appear two dimensional when we observe them.

Daisy writes about her life in the context of her viewings of the monthly masterpiece on display at the National Gallery during the war. Her letters are those of an ordinary Londoner – no spirit of the blitz here but just the stark reality of sleeping amongst strangers in shelters, and crowding round a painting to grab a glimpse of something inspirational while the war rages into a fourth year.

Daisy is also painfully honest about the opportunities she knows she only has because of the war, about her yearnings for a fuller life and how this all impacts on her romances. Small wonder that Claire, looking for a new way to live her life, sees the letters a form of relief, not just for the distraction but for the insight into the mind of another woman whose life is in turmoil. There comes a point where we do wonder if Claire will start to live her life as a mirror of Daisy’s, purely because she has no other sense of direction or purpose.

Macpherson’s descriptions of the artwork, through the eyes of different people at different times, are the highlight of the book. The letters from Daisy provide a welcome break in a narrative that is short on dialogue. Although Rob and Claire are having problems communicating, it was noticeable that without the letters, the silence in Claire’s life would have been overwhelming. While that is one way to get that point across to the reader, some more dialogue would have created more understanding of the present day characters.

Although Claire and Rob do begin to change, they seem trapped in an old fashioned male and female stereotype mode. Daisy, in letters that date back nearly seventy years, seems more open minded and better suited to the modern world than Claire.

The somewhat predictable ending for Rob and Claire almost mattered less than the story of what happened to Daisy, as she was much more three dimensional and subsequently easier to care about. Overall, the novel has some strong points, but the main characters being so weak made it less enjoyable than it should have been.

If this book appeals then you might like to try The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies.

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