READERS GUIDE“This book will conjure up the colors of Manet and Picasso more effectively than a glossy reproduction. . . . A thriller, a travelogue, and a mystery.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Sara Houghteling’s remarkable debut novel Pictures at an Exhibition.
IntroductionSet in Paris during the chaos of World War II, Pictures at an Exhibition is narrated by Max Berenzon, who from the vantage of a quiet old age looks back at his turbulent youth during the years just before, during, and after the war. It is a coming-of-age novel, chronicling its hero’s loss of innocence and painful awakening into mature knowledge. But it is also a love story and a fascinating historical fiction, firmly rooted in actual events, about Nazi art theft and valiant attempts to save some of France’s greatest artworks.
As the novel begins, the young Max is suffering two major disappointments. His father, one of the most important art dealers in Paris, has decided not to pass on his gallery to him, arguing the Max lacks the necessary skill and passion. And when his father hires a beautiful gallery assistant, Rose Clément, Max is siezed by an infatuation that will hold him spellbound for years.
As Paris falls to the Nazis, the Jewish Berenzons go into hiding in the French countryside. And when they return to Paris in 1944, they discover to their horror that the father’s entire art collection, including masterpieces by Picasso, Pissarro, Manet, Matisse, and many others, has been looted by the Nazis. The elder Berenzon is broken by this catastrophe, but Max sees in it a chance to win redemption in his father’s eyes by recovering his paintings. And if he cannot find them all, then he will devote himself to recovering his father’s most prized possession, Manet’s Almonds. His desperate search will take him into the duplicitous and dangerous world of corrupt art dealers, black-market collectors, Nazi collaborators, concentration camp survivors, and members of the French Resistance.
As well as an outward journey to reclaim his father’s stolen paintings, Max’s quest is also an inward one that leads to greater self-knowledge and a painful loss of illusions. Along the way, he learns much about himself and his deepest motives, stumbles on a traumatic family secret, discovers the unsung heroism of Rose Clément, and is forced accept the fateful disappearance of his best friend Bertrand.
What makes Pictures at an Exhibition so remarkable is that it combines all these elements—Max’s quest for his father’s paintings and his own identity, the tragedy of the massive Nazi art theft in France, and the compelling story of a real-life hero of the Resistance, Rose Clément—so seamlessly. But the major focus of the novel is Max, who is driven by an extraordinary intersection of family dynamics, romantic illusions, vast historical forces, and his own unfolding personal psychology. His story provides a unique and emotionally resonant portal into the complexities of the war years in Paris.
Written with a sure grasp of historical fact and a powerful narrative drive, Pictures at an Exhibition takes readers behind the scenes of the Parisian art world, revealing an aspect of World War II that has rarely been so deftly explored.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Pictures at an Exhibition is framed by the much older Max reflecting on his youth during the war years in Paris. How does this frame affect how the novel is read? Why does Max feel compelled to revisit his memories “determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them”? [p. 3].
2. Sara Houghteling has obviously gathered a wealth of research for Pictures at an Exhibition. By what means does she manage to weave this information into a compelling fictional narrative? What is the effect of mixing both actual historical figures—like Rose Clément, Hermann Goering, and others—with purely fictional characters?
3. What are the pleasures of reading historical fiction? What might account for the great resurgence of the historical novel in past decade?
4. When he first meets him, Chaim asks Max if he is “lost in the spiritual sense” [p. 108]. Is Max spiritually lost? In what sense is his quest to find his father’s paitings a spiritual quest?
5. Rose tells Max: “I think that you are looking for extraordinary happiness, with me, with these lost paintings, and it is not here. Not in this lifetime. Only aspire, Max, to ordinary happiness” [p. 169]. Is Rose right about Max’s aspirations? Does he find “ordinary happiness” in the end?
6. In what ways is Max’s relationship with his father complicated and difficult? What does Max ultimately hope to accomplish by finding his father’s stolen paintings?
7. By what means is Rose able to lull the Nazis into trusting her? How does she manage to turn herself into a “registry of lost art” [p.151] and thereby help rescue hundreds of paintings after the war?
8. How does learning of his sister affect Max? Why does he consider it a betrayal that his parents and Rose have kept Micheline’s existence and her death a secret from him?
9. Late in the novel, it occurs to Max that “the child believes his parents’ behavior has everything to do with him, always, and that this will then be the source of a life’s worth of misunderstandings” [p. 219]. In what ways is this true of Max? What misunderstandings have resulted from his feeling that his parents’ behavior was always about him?
10. What does the love story—Max’s unrequited love for Rose—add to the novel? Why does Rose repeatedly reject him?
11. What does Pictures at an Exhibition reveal about the inner workings of the art world in Paris before, during, and after World War II? In what ways were art collectors and dealers often complicit in the theft and resale of great artworks during this period?
12. What are the many ways in which the theme of loss gets played out in the novel? What are the major losses that Max suffers?
13. After Max is mugged and beaten on the streets of Paris, he thinks to himself: “My father had been right—the paintings were not to be found—and had turned back as soon as he sensed this, which was almost instantly. I had gone on, blindly. I was a work on paper: weightless, sketchy, all impulse” [p. 210]. Why does Max keep searching “blindly” for his father’s paintings? In what sense is he a “work on paper, weightless, sketchy, all impulse”?
14. What does Pictures at an Exhibition add to our knowledge of World War II?
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