The author of Pictures at an Exhibition, Camilla Macpherson, emailed me recently to ask if I would like to review the book for the blog. I had so much else to read that I said thanks but no thanks. But, the blurb was intriguing & we had copies at work so I borrowed one & I loved it. I read it in just a few days & it was a struggle to put the book down at lunchtime & go back to work.
The novel is the story of a young woman, Claire, who has had a miscarriage & can’t get over her loss. She blames her husband, Rob, for not being there when she needed him. Her grief is so all-consuming that she has lost interest in her work as well as her marriage. Everywhere there are reminders of her lost baby, Oliver. Then, one day, a parcel arrives that will give Claire a new interest in life. Claire begins reading the letters of a young woman called Daisy Milton who was in London during the Blitz. Daisy was writing to Rob’s grandmother, Elizabeth, in Canada & the letters have been left to him in his grandmother’s will. The letters are full of Daisy’s life in London, the horrors of the Blitz & the boredom & irritations of life in wartime. Daisy decides to visit the National Gallery every month where one painting from the collection was displayed (everything else was stored in caves in Wales for safe keeping) & she describes her visits & the paintings in her letters to Elizabeth. This was part of a Government project to keep up morale which also included a famous series of lunchtime concerts by renowned pianist Dame Myra Hess.
Claire decides to follow Daisy’s example & each month after reading Daisy’s letter to Elizabeth she visits the painting in the National Gallery. She becomes fascinated by Daisy’s life as well as her reactions to the paintings on display. Daisy was engaged to Charles, a young man about to be sent overseas to North Africa. Charles has a very conventional idea of their future. They will live in a house in the country & Daisy will look after the children & the house while he earns a living. Daisy isn’t entirely sure that this is the future she wants, or at least, not yet. She enjoys working, although she struggles to see how her work as a typist in a Whitehall ministry is helping the war effort, no matter what her boss says. One day at the Gallery, Daisy meets Richard Dacre, an artist who has a commission as a war artist. They begin meeting at the Gallery to look at the paintings & Daisy knows that she’s falling in love with Richard. Her letters to Elizabeth become a way of working through her feelings about Charles & Richard & the decisions she makes that will affect them all.
Claire & Rob grow further apart & she meets a man at the gallery who is obviously attracted to her. Dominic is handsome, knowledgeable & confident & soon Claire has confided in him about Oliver & her marriage as they drift towards an affair. Claire finds she has to make some decisions about her future as Dominic pursues her & Rob seems to have given up waiting for her to forgive him & let him back into her life.
The parallels in the lives of Claire & Daisy are highlighted by the paintings both women see. This is what makes Pictures at an Exhibition stand out among the many novels set in two different periods. If you have an iPhone, you can scan a QR code at the beginning of each chapter to see a reproduction of the painting. I just searched for them on my iPad. The paintings include Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, Apollo and Daphne by Pollaiuolo, Madonna of the Basket by Correggio & Constable’s Weymouth Bay. The paintings provide a link between two time periods & two women whose lives are at a crossroads. Claire isn’t always a sympathetic character as her absorption in her own grief shuts out Rob as well as her family & friends. She finds a way to deal with her emotions through becoming absorbed in Daisy’s story & she begins to heal. Her search to find out more about Daisy & what became of her helps her to reconnect with her own life & accept her loss.
I’m very grateful that Camilla Macpherson emailed me because I hadn’t heard of her book & I probably wouldn’t have found it without that little push. I always find it interesting to think about how I decide what to read next. Even though I had so much to read I was intrigued enough to download a sample from Amazon & then get hold of a copy from work. Serendipity has a lot to do with my reading choices & this was an especially fortunate example of that.