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.