The Gallery of Van­ished Husbands

By – July 26, 2013

On her twen­ty-third birth­day Juli­et Mon­tague comes home to find that both her hus­band and her most prized pos­ses­sion — her por­trait, paint­ed when she was nine — have dis­ap­peared. In the tra­di­tion­al sub­ur­ban Lon­don Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in which she lives, Juli­et is now an agu­nah. Her hus­band has van­ished with­out giv­ing her a divorce, leav­ing her in life­long lim­bo, unable to mar­ry and looked upon with a mix­ture of sym­pa­thy and suspicion.

On Juli­et Montague’s thir­ti­eth birth­day she heads to Lon­don, deter­mined to have a good day and buy a bad­ly need­ed refrig­er­a­tor with mon­ey she has saved for months. On a walk along Bayswa­ter Road, how­ev­er, she sees a young artist work­ing on a por­trait of a girl and decides to buy that instead. The artist refus­es to sell it, telling Juli­et that what she wants is a por­trait of her­self, which he will paint for the same price. That meet­ing and that por­trait change Juli­et Montague’s life.

With two young chil­dren, a job at her father’s opti­cal com­pa­ny, and her par­ents near­by, Juli­et is firm­ly anchored in her tra­di­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. But her meet­ing with the painter Char­lie Fussell, a tal­ent­ed and social­ly con­nect­ed young man, launch­es them on a bold ven­ture. Juli­et has a tal­ent for look­ing at pic­tures, for see­ing art; Char­lie has a tal­ent for paint­ing and trav­els in a cir­cle of sim­i­lar­ly tal­ent­ed artists. Juli­et and the artists open Wednesday’s Gallery, and over the next decades she becomes the pro­pri­etor of the high­ly respect­ed and suc­cess­ful gallery, an inno­v­a­tive and impor­tant fig­ure in the Lon­don art world of the 1960s and the own­er of scores of por­traits paint­ed by her artists. And through the gallery she comes into the life of the reclu­sive artist Max Lang­ford, who, like her, is frozen by expe­ri­ences that con­fine him; togeth­er they cre­ate a love that frees them to live more fully.

Natasha Solomons, a nov­el­ist and screen­writer, tells a good sto­ry and keeps the read­er ful­ly engaged in Juliet’s sto­ries — her dar­ing leap into a for­eign world where she is nev­er entire­ly at home and her uncom­fort­able home in the con­ven­tion­al­i­ties of Chisle­hurst, always shad­owed by her van­ished hus­band and the dam­age he has left behind. If at times it’s nec­es­sary to will­ing­ly sus­pend dis­be­lief and fill in some gaps and if the sto­ry moves a bit pre­dictably, those are small dis­trac­tions in a sat­is­fy­ing and well-paced book.

A Con­ver­sa­tion with Natasha Solomons

by Elise Coop­er

Natasha Solomon­s’s lat­est book, The Gallery of Van­ished Hus­bands, is a por­trait of Juli­et Montague’s life from 1958 to 2006. She choos­es her own future by chal­leng­ing her world both cul­tur­al­ly and reli­gious­ly. Natasha’s main char­ac­ter looks upon her­self as an out­sider and strives for an inde­pen­dent iden­ti­ty with­out los­ing the close­ness of her par­ents and children.

Elise Coop­er: Every fic­tion­al author has a part of them­selves in their char­ac­ter. Is there a part of you in Juliet?

Natasha Solomons: Just like Juli­et, I have a com­plex rela­tion­ship with my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. My moth­er is Jew­ish and my father is not. I was brought up in a com­plete­ly sec­u­lar house­hold. It is a gen­er­a­tional thing because my mom was also brought up that way. After her par­ents escaped from Ger­many dur­ing World War II they tried to assim­i­late into the Eng­lish cul­ture as much as pos­si­ble. How­ev­er, my back­ground is dif­fer­ent from Juliet’s because her fam­i­ly came to Eng­land much ear­li­er to escape the East Euro­pean Pogroms.

EC: Your main char­ac­ters have been Jew­ish and you include in your writ­ings many Jew­ish tra­di­tions from Yid­dish words to the cel­e­bra­tion of Shab­bat. Why?

NS: Every time I sit down I say to myself I am not going to write about a Jew­ish hero­ine but then look­ing back I have. I think it’s because I am fas­ci­nat­ed with it. My hus­band is Jew­ish and his fam­i­ly is tra­di­tion­al which has had an influ­ence on my writ­ings. I am con­stant­ly drawn to my Jew­ish cul­ture, which is reflect­ed in my work. As an author I need to write about what feels true for me.

EC: Why did you refer to Juliet’s par­ents by their last names, Mr. and Mrs. Greene, when the oth­er char­ac­ters were referred to by their first names?

NS: I had Juliet’s par­ents rep­re­sent the more for­mal era while con­trast­ing that with Juli­et who in many ways reject­ed their life, includ­ing falling in love with Max, a non-Jew. Juli­et wants some­thing dif­fer­ent from her par­ents’ lives. The sto­ry of Juliet’s per­son­al jour­ney is about lov­ing and admir­ing your fam­i­ly but not fit­ting into their world. Although she doesn’t share the reli­gious val­ues of her grown-up daugh­ter, Frie­da, or her par­ents, she obvi­ous­ly adores them. Even though she had the mon­ey to move away she remains in the heart of the sub­ur­ban Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. What is most impor­tant to her is her fam­i­ly, so in that way she is incred­i­bly tra­di­tion­al. She puts them above every­thing else.

EC: Did you have the sto­ry take place in the Six­ties because women were start­ing to become inde­pen­dent and were able to gain new opportunities? 

NS: I chose that decade because I want­ed to con­trast the swing­ing changes in that era with Juliet’s small town Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty. They were con­ser­v­a­tive in their beliefs and val­ues and were uncom­fort­able with the changes in Juli­et and her new wave of big city Lon­don ideas. The nov­el begins with Juli­et decid­ing she can­not be just a mom any longer, that she wants to find anoth­er piece of her­self. It is a sto­ry of how Juli­et strug­gles with mak­ing sure she is a won­der­ful moth­er who does right by her chil­dren and at the same time being ambi­tious by want­i­ng to have a sense of herself.

EC: There were 100 por­traits paint­ed of Juli­et. Why did she have this kalei­do­scope of paintings?

NS: They all expressed her desire to be seen instead of being invis­i­ble. She wants to be paint­ed again and again because she is intrigued by how oth­er peo­ple see her as she ages. All the por­traits expressed a lit­tle piece of her. The first one, paint­ed when she was nine, is very impor­tant to her. Fast-for­ward fif­teen years when her hus­band stole it after he aban­doned her and the chil­dren. She is con­stant­ly look­ing to get it back because the paint­ing rep­re­sents a piece of her that is missing.

EC: Why does her lover, Max, paint her as a goose?

NS: As a war painter dur­ing WWII he had PTSD. He became ter­ri­fied to paint peo­ple because he felt all those por­traits paint­ed were of peo­ple who suf­fered a ter­ri­ble fate so now he just paints birds. He chose a goose because it sym­bol­izes Juliet’s jour­ney and is con­sid­ered a strong bird.

EC: What about the por­trait by her son, Leonard?

NS: She was able to con­nect with him through art because they shared a sim­i­lar pas­sion. As he paint­ed her it became an intense emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. There was so much of her he want­ed to express it became an epic paint­ing. I became fas­ci­nat­ed with the notion of a son paint­ing his mother’s life and how it draws them clos­er together.

EC: What do you want the read­ers to understand?

NS: A paint­ing por­trait is an expres­sion that cap­tures the sense of a per­son. I am hop­ing read­ers see Juli­et as an out­sider as she rein­vents her­self. More impor­tant­ly this was a sto­ry of rela­tion­ships: with her par­ents, chil­dren, and lover.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

1. How does the open­ing scene of the book set the tone for the rest of the nov­el? What was your first impres­sion of Juliet?

2. Leonard spends much of his life search­ing for his father in one way or anoth­er, start­ing with his trip to Lon­don, where he finds Char­lie instead. What are some of the most pro­nounced effects George’s dis­ap­pear­ance has on Leonard? On Frieda?

3. When Juli­et buys the por­trait of her­self from Char­lie, it is not­ed that what she wants (more than a fridge) is to be seen.” How does this car­ry over through the nov­el? Do you think this desire has always been part of her? Or is her agu­na sta­tus the cause?

4. How does Juliet’s Jew­ish­ness set her apart from the boys” in the gallery and oth­ers in the Lon­don art scene? Is it to her ben­e­fit in some ways? She sens­es her oth­er­ness, but does it both­er her? Does she tru­ly not belong any­where, as she remarks at one point? Does anyone?

5. Glass­es are a recur­ring motif. Mr. Greene notes that Juli­et is the only mem­ber of the fam­i­ly who nev­er need­ed spec­ta­cles. What do you make of this? And did you find glass­es to be sym­bol­ic in oth­er parts of the nov­el? Of what?

6. Can you under­stand Max’s ini­tial reluc­tance to paint Juli­et? Has he pro­tect­ed Juli­et, as he believes, by paint­ing her as a bird?

7. Philip paints por­traits of both Frie­da and Juli­et. Why is he able to cap­ture Frie­da per­fect­ly, but not Juli­et? Do you think that Frie­da, as an ado­les­cent, is in some ways more exposed and open with others?

8. What does Amer­i­ca rep­re­sent to Juli­et? And how is this sec­tion of the nov­el — the jour­ney to Cal­i­for­nia — set apart from the rest?

9. What did you make of Vera? Was her meet­ing with Juli­et what you expected?

10. Tibor says to Juli­et that all of the women he has paint­ed in his life have been her. She isn’t sure whether or not to believe him, or whether or not it mat­ters. What do you think? Were you sur­prised that she stole the painting?

11. Why does Frie­da turn to reli­gion, and why does Frieda’s faith so upset Juliet?

12. When Char­lie intro­duces Juli­et to Allan Gold, he doesn’t men­tion that Allan is Jew­ish: He hadn’t want­ed her to know that they were in the least bit alike.” What does this inci­dent tell you about Char­lie and how he feels about Juliet?

13. When Char­lie and Jim con­front Juli­et about Max, Jim says that she has a blind spot” for Max. Are they right? How does Tom’s death tie in to this argument?

14. Can you under­stand Leonard’s anger at Juli­et for not notic­ing his paint­ings, not respect­ing them in the way he wants her to? Why can’t Juli­et tell him what he longs to hear?

15. When Max shows Juli­et his last paint­ing, The Last Time I Saw Her,” she real­izes that he has man­aged to paint her com­plete­ly, every piece” of her­self, and that he loves and needs her. Why does this amaze her?

16. Does George’s let­ter to Juli­et change your per­cep­tion of him at all? What do you make of Juliet’s deci­sion to keep the let­ter from her children?

17. Do you think that Leonard will fin­ish Juliet’s portrait?