Review: The Very Picture of You — Isabel Wolff

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Book List:
1. Best Friends Forever — Jennifer Weiner
2. The Very Picture of You — Isabel Wolff

Ella Graham is an artist whose career is on the rise. She has a gift for capturing the essential truth in her subjects’ faces in her luminous, revealing canvases, and she is gaining widespread recognition and commissions from royals and regular folks alike.

But closer to home, Ella finds the truth more elusive. Her father abandoned the family when she was five, and her mother has remained silent on the subject ever since. Ella’s sister, Chloe, is engaged to Nate, an American working in London, but Ella suspects that he may not be as committed. At Chloe’s behest, however, Ella reluctantly agrees to paint Nate’s portrait.

In the magic space of the studio, Ella begins to see Nate in a different light, and finds her feelings changing. In fact, as her latest portrait subjects — a charming older woman with a wartime secret, a handsome politician who has a confession to make, and privileged, discontented Frenchwoman — take her into their confidence, Ella realizes that there is much more to a person’s life than what can be seen on the surface.

Firstly: this is one of the prettiest book covers ever. I’m absolutely in love with the colour and the font and the frame and the everything. Moving on…

When I read another book by Isabel Wolff (A Vintage Affair), I enjoyed it but never mentioned that I felt somewhat disconnected from the story. It was nice but nothing in it particularly roused my emotions. I didn’t feel for the characters; I liked them, but there wasn’t enough there to make me feel passionately towards them (whether it be passionate love or passionate hate). However, that wasn’t a problem this time around: The Very Picture of You was filled with plenty of tension, emotion, and mystery — all of which inspired very passionate loving or loathing of the characters.

On the topic of mystery, the one that surrounded the disappearance of John Sharp, Ella’s biological father, was really well executed. Leading up to the reveal, Wolff left plenty of clues that suggested something was amiss in the Sharp-Graham family tree without spoiling it; when the big secret finally came out, all the pieces fell into place and I was left gaping. (Okay, well, that’s not true because I’ll be honest with you guys: I like to skim books so I skimmed this one, and read the big reveal before I’d even started the book. So I already knew what was going to happen. But, you know, if I read traditionally, like a normal person, I would have been left gaping, I’m sure of it.)

I noticed echoes of silence and repression in the Graham women; though Ella finds herself livid with her mother for staying silent on the topic of John Sharp for years, she and Chloe deal with their respective issues the very same way: by simply not saying a thing. Rather than taking her father up on his offer to talk, Ella internalizes her pain and stays away from him; Chloe would rather go through with a wedding to a man she only likes than admit her uncertainty. And Sue, hands down the book’s most infuriating character, allows Ella to go on making assumptions about her father by remaining mute on the subject. On that last score, every time Sue Graham opened her mouth I wanted to reach through the book and slap her in her face — which I was quite happy about; it’s rare that a book makes me that responsive.

On the topic of feelings, Ella, our protagonist, was lovely but didn’t seem to have any. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a broad statement. She’d have moments where I thought she’d come close to actual emotion, and then it would disappear five seconds later. There was so much turmoil within her family yet she just seemed to be immune to it, and walked around rather woodenly. She had more overt feelings for her sister’s soon-to-be husband.

And since we’re talking about that, I liked the development of the romance between Ella and Nate. Barring an abrupt start — she suddenly just became infatuated with him with absolutely no warning or explanation, which was a little disorienting — I thought they way they interacted with each other was believable, and not forced.

The book’s conclusion was something I could’ve seen coming a mile away, but I liked that, unlike in A Vintage Affair, not everything was tied up nicely: the Graham family was left with residual tension, and Ella was getting to know her father on a slower scale.

Final note: though I did enjoy the book, I was incredibly disappointed with the frequent grammatical mistakes in it. For example, the use of the phrase “in agonies” instead of “in agony.” This may be a regional thing — so correct me if I’m wrong — but to be “in agonies” is not a thing. And using the term “try and” instead of “try to.” No. Just no.

Despite that, The Very Picture of You was really quite fantastic. This year has gotten off to a good start, literature-wise!

Next book: that is a relevant question.

– Kelsey


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