After her mother’s death in 2005, Anne Summers inherits a portrait of her mother as a child. Mesmerised by this image, she finds herself drawn into the story of how the portrait was painted and eventually found its way into her family. She soon learns the artist painted another portrait of her mother; this time as the Madonna. In a gripping narrative that is part art history, part detective story and part meditation on the relations between mothers and daughters, Anne’s search for the Madonna painting and the mysterious Russian émigré collector who bought both paintings takes her down unexpected paths.
Her search soon turns into a parallel quest to rescue Constance Stokes, the artist, from obscurity. Along the way Anne finds she must face the truth of the relationship she had with her mother.
We have made a conscious effort to read more non-fiction this year, so our first choice was this investigative journey from Anne Summers.
Firstly, we found the title slightly misleading … implying a more mother/daughter narrative. Instead, Summers sets her nose to the grindstone trying to uncover the circumstances around two portraits her mother sat for in her childhood for the artist Constance Stokes.
Those of us who finished this book felt the author lost her way. And although we found the world of Australian artists in Melbourne during the 20s and 30s extremely interesting, and Stokes herself an intriguing character, the genealogy of the art collector, Lydia, was drawn out and dreary with little to connect us.
Why Summers felt she needed to tread this path we are not sure, but Vanessa felt that the author and Lydia shared some personality traits which could explain her fascination with this Russian immigrant.
As a group, there was little love for this book. Some believed the writing poorly thought out with nothing to set it apart or make it anything special. Cathy went into the book with high hopes but found it to be not what she had hoped. Although readable, she felt the author went off on tangents that did not really interest her.
To us, Summers seems to have written this book for the express purpose of recording her findings during the search for her mother’s lost portrait (the whole existence of which we are not even confident still survives). Regardless of her reasons or rationale, our group could not rate this read higher than five to six and would only describe it as a put-downable coffee table book (Mary’s words). There was however, some interest in her highly respected reputation as a writer and we will no doubt be picking up something else of hers in the near future.