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A cleverly interwoven and fascinating story linking four centuries, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith is not only a historical novel of Dutch art in the Golden Age of the 17th century, it is also a contemporary novel covering the 1950s and the year 2,000.

The factual author’s note at the beginning sets the scene and gives immediate authenticity for what is to follow. The book starts with an attention-grabbing semi-dramatic act of a stolen painting. The scene is initially set with only a few succinct words and not only for a stolen painting from Marty de Groot but for family history, life as it is in 1956 and a little spookiness or superstition.

The swap to the Dutch art world where Guilds have so much power, in the spring of 1636 is one that grabs your attention as well as your empathy for Sara who is part of a male-dominated art world. Tragedy unfolds as we are caught up in her life. The story is quick and decisive and the reader wants to not miss a word.

Last painting of Sara de Vos

1957 brings more interest with the personality of Australian-born Ellie Shipley. The author paints vivid word pictures and we can visualise Ellie right where she is. Ellie is a young woman of principles even though these are to be compromised. Her guilt and unease in painting a copy (and not in her mind a forgery at this stage), is to follow her for most of her life. At this stage, the reader can see a connecting web being brilliantly spun between the three main characters.

I found the swap in the story to July, Sydney 2000, unexpected. I needed to turn the pages back in the book to find out the year in which we last heard of Ellie. This swap is very skilfully done and gives structure to the story. I loved the scene of Scotland Island where she has relocated.

I have a tendency to get a little lost in books that swap from one person to another, or one time to another. Dominic Smith gives many gentle cues and therefore keeps the story flowing and so easy to read.

The book has balance and it is great that each person is equally interesting. I found myself loving each character with their strengths and weaknesses although Sara has so much courage and fortitude and is definitely not a weak person.

I like the way we gradually learn about each individual as the book progresses, especially later in the manuscript and of Ellie at sixteen. The vulnerability of teenagers will strike a chord with most readers and may even remind us of our own experience. We can also feel so much empathy for Marty De Groot at the age of 83.

I cannot fault this wonderful story with its collision of characters and events. The finale is unforeseeable and just so appropriate. A read for all seasons.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith is available from Dymocks.

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Lorraine Parker

Lorraine taught in the area of Technology and Applied Studies for over 40 years. Her career in education culminated in tertiary education teacher training (Textile Innovation at the Australian Catholic University and Whitehouse School of Fashion), followed by contract work to write several units of work for Southern Cross University. She recently finished part time work and simply changed direction with time to devote to her own creativity. You can find her work at Creative Textiles.

  1. After reading your critique, I’m looking forward to reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. You mentioned how well each character was represented, and I find the same to be true of the characters in the book that I am presently reading, which is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Steinbeck is my favourite novelist to date, and as I’m now in my 60s I have read hundreds. He not only transports me to the place and the time; he allows me to experience each character’s moods and their reasoning, the complexities of their relationships to one another. I get to also experience the geographical and climatic moods that nature throws in the paths of the characters. An excellent example of such is to be found in The Grapes of Wrath. And the political mood which affected the characters in Cannery Row.

    My second favourite author is Harper Lee, and for the same reasons as I favour John Steinbeck. Go Set a Watchman did not serve as an adequate afterglow following To Kill a Mockingbird, however, because the vividness was no longer there. Go Set a Watchman was about Scout’s transformation from childhood into adulthood, having lost her protective father and her brother. I didn’t feel enough connection to Scout; she’d lost a lot of her warmth, which I found disappointing. What do other Starts at 60s think?

    1 REPLY
    • Oh, Gail what wonderful books you are reading. East of Eden is one of those I must reread it has been too long and The Grapes of Wrath is so evocative of time and place as you say.

      I agree with your thoughts on Go Set a Watchman, but overall I think is is a good read. I did relate to Scout returning as a woman who moved from her closed society into the wider world. When she comes home she expects it to have changed in line with her world, but is horrified to find that the old thinking still exists. I think when she comes to grip with the reality that her father is not progressive and colour-blind but defended the African American boy because he values the law, is sad for both of them. They realise they now hold different values, but has parallels with how our opinions may have changed from those of our parents.

  2. I will get this book from my Library, as it seems comparable to ‘The Flanders Panel’ by Arturo Perez-Reverte, whose various books I’ve loved reading.

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