Tuesday, March 26, 2024

THE LADY WITH THE DARK HAIR by Erin Bartels, Reviewed by Paula and Rebecca #ReleaseDay

(Dual Time Contemporary and Historical Fiction about Artists and Identity)

"Maybe painting won't fill the empty places inside of me . . . Probably it won't. But surely it can make them more beautiful."

Viviana Torrens has been on the run, having lived a life in two dimensions already, incredibly and quietly existing in a third . . . one that will change the course of her young life forever . . . after the master of the French household where she is serving as a scullery maid, by strange coincidence, teaches her to paint. She's quite good, thus catching the eye of a traveling Gilbraltarian merchant, Francisco Vella, who travels the world acquiring and selling pigments to a wide array of artists. While Vella might be Viviana's ticket to freedom when danger calls, he's certainly not her savior, even though history confuses their story altogether.

"She was ordinary. Utterly ordinary in every way. Just a middle-aged woman taking care of her mentally ill mother. Alone."

Esther Markstrom's life has revolved around maintaining her family's ancestral ties to modestly acclaimed painter Francisco Vella; their small privately owned museum and gallery highlighting Vella's work provides her with a minimal source of income and perpetuates family pride. When Esther's former art history professor's visit raises some interesting questions, curiosity leads her to wonder even more about the identity represented on the canvas of the beautiful family heirloom painting titled, "The Lady with the Dark Hair". What will it require of Esther to seek those answers?

Two women. Centuries apart. Separated by continents. Sharing one goal. To discover their true identities.

A fascinating time-split written by an author who consistently writes unique stories with layers upon layers of starts and stops, her characters merging and diverging upon the page, much like the brushstrokes on the incredible portrait.
•I received a copy of this book from Baker Publishing through Interviews and Reviews. The opinions stated above are entirely my own.

An intriguing story in dual time. 
I especially connected with the present when Esther goes to a flea market and antique shops . It reminds me of attending shows, flea markets and auctions with my mother who was an antique dealer.

The past timeline was rich in descriptions of an artist, his muse and the techniques of painting.

The connector was a painting titled The Lady With the Dark Hair by Francisco Vella. Family tradition says that Vella was an ancestor of Esther Markstrom through her mother who is also an artist. Esther has built her career around the painter by opening a gallery under the Vella-Markstrom names. She has a degree in art and has researched her subject well but still has things to discover as another painting surfaces.

The 1879 period recounts Viviana Torrens, her unique background and how she happened to accompany Vella on a world trip to acquire pigments which he sold to artists. This takes place during the Impressionist movement (one of my favorite artists is Monet) and Mary Cassatt makes an appearance.

This was an utterly fascinating story told in a winsome way.
*I won complimentary copy of this book from Library Thing through Revell and I also acquired a digital copy from NetGalley. I was not required to post a favorable review. All opinions are mine alone.*5 stars and a clean read

BackCover Blurb:
Esther Markstrom and her artist mother have always been proud of their ancestor, painter Francisco Vella. They even run a small museum and gallery dedicated to raising awareness of his scandalously underappreciated work. But when Esther reconnects with her former art history professor, she finds her once-solid family history on shaky ground as questions arise about Vella's greatest work--a portrait entitled The Lady with the Dark Hair.

In 1879, Catalan orphan-turned-fugitive Viviana Torrens has found sanctuary serving in the home of an aging artist in Southern France. It is in his studio that she meets Francisco Vella, a Gibraltarian merchant who sells artists' pigments. When her past catches up to her, she is compelled to pose as Vella's sister and join him on his travels or be deported back to Spain to stand trial. Along the way she will discover that the many parts she has been playing in order to hide her identity have far-reaching implications she never could have foreseen.

This dual-timeline story from award-winning author Erin Bartels takes readers from the sleepy Midwest to the sultry Mediterranean on a relentless search for truth, identity, and the freedom to follow one's dreams.

Revell Publishing, March, 2024
Available in digital ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook:

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