Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

I was really looking forward to reading this book, because I so enjoyed Harr's 1995 book A Civil Action. That story, of corporate malfeasance and legal shenanigans, was compelling, and Harr's writing made even arcane points of law and policy accessible and interesting. His characters were flawed, fascinating people, and the book was a great read -- filled with action, conflict, and uncertainty.

Thus I was greatly disappointed by the flat prose, dull characters and lack of dramatic tension in this book. The lost painting to which the title refers is a masterpiece by Caravaggio that was discovered hanging in a Jesuit home in Ireland after more than two hundred years of being missing from the record. I knew this from the book reviews, and also from the news of the discovery when it happened (like A Civil Action, this book is non-fiction). But you have to read 65 pages before Harr even mentions this painting, and even then it's only a passing reference. Instead he spends the beginning of the book introducing us to several characters who seem to have little or no connection to one another, and spends a lot of time following around a young scholar as she researches the provenance of a different Caravaggio painting. How long can you read about someone sitting in different libraries reading different books?

Harr's prose is as uninspired as his plot. When Francesca, the scholar, holds a volume from the 17th century, she "feels like she is touching history." Well duh. We are treated to a several-page description of Francesca's drive out to an old country estate to look for more archives. Do we really care that the air is sweet, and that Francesca is not a very good driver? This is filler, and it really really irritates me. I kept plowing through all this stuff, saying "where is the painting? what painting is missing? who is looking for this painting, and why? why are you bothering me with all this boring stuff, get to the point!" Finally, at page 75, I put the book down in disgust. And there you have it.

This book's grade is D, meaning I didn't hate it as much as I hated Everything is Illuminated, but I still couldn't read it.


Anonymous said...

Oh no! I must admit I enjoyed this one. I've never read "A Civil Action" (been meaning to get on that) but now will have to read it and see how they compare. Maybe the secret is low expectations? Thanks for the honest review.

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