The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Chaim Soutine’s painting The Bellhop is the thread that ties two women’s lives together in this well-imagined novel.
When she is eleven years old, Rose and her brother Gerhard are sent from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport after the Nazis take over Austria in 1938. Their beloved parents perish during the war, and scarred by this experience, Rose is plagued by thoughts of what could have happened to her mother’s favorite painting—The Bellhop, which she purchased years ago from a Parisian gallery. Rose never stops searching for traces of its whereabouts.
Fast-forward to present-day Los Angeles, where Lizzie Goldstein is mourning the loss of her own father. After the war, The Bellhop made its way to a gallery in New York and was bought by her father — but then stolen during a party that Lizzie had arranged. This event has continued to haunt Lizzie, now a successful attorney in New York who has come to Los Angeles to help her sister settle their father’s estate.
Umansky details the two women’s personal stories as she skips between 1936 and 2008. Rose and Lizzie, more than a generation apart, share a seminal psychological trauma of loss of childhood security though the loss of a parent. When they do meet because of their shared passion — the search for the fate of the painting — the immediate empathy they feel for each other despite their vastly different life experiences is credible, and a tribute to the author’s understanding of human nature. Neither woman has strong Jewish ties, yet Umansky includes an attempt by Lizzie to find solace when she goes to temple to say kaddish for her father.
Art restitution after World War II is the subject of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. Lizzie even refers to the book about the legal battle for the Gustave Klimt painting Woman In Gold, which was made into a widely seen film. Establishment of provenance is often time-consuming and costly, and, early on in the story, Rose’s brother Gerhard tells her to forget it and just go forward. (As the title implies, they are, after all, the “Fortunate Ones.”)
How the mystery gets solved and whether there is a complete resolution is almost less important than the hunt itself. Umansky, in this debut novel, has demonstrated true story-telling talent.