In this uneven novel, the author attempts a psychological coup de grace, the characters’ personal dramas overlapping in a manner that is vaguely gothic and threatening, but for the most part a romance/mystery, not all of which works well.
Charlotte (Charlie) Hudson has enjoyed significant success with the publication of her first-person tale of war-torn Kosovo, leaving out the more intimate parts of the traumatic event, where she herself falls victim to the violence raging across the region: “She’d fallen head over heels in love with war, with the best and the worst it brought out in humanity.”
Barely recovered from the ordeal, her nights still shattered by horrific nightmares, Charlie seeks oblivion, sometimes in a bottle of fine wine, other times devoting her energies to a second writing endeavor, inspired by her grandfather’s great affection for the works of artist JMW Turner.
In doing research on Turner, Charlie visits a specialty store for artist’s supplies and fine papers, where she meets a successful contemporary artist, Sir Alan Matheson, who encourages her interest in Turner and that artist’s fascination for the paper on which he painted his masterpieces.
Sir Alan, an older man, woman- and paper connoisseur with dark family secrets in his past, is immediately attracted to the young journalist, and their relationship, begun innocently enough, takes a more serious turn as they spend time together. Matheson encourages Charlie to pursue the book on Turner, offering to help in any way he can, not realizing the depth of her internal conflicts.
Through her blossoming romance with Alan, Charlie’s journalistic curiosity is piqued by Alan’s past; true to form, she tackles this new mystery, determined to discover if the man in her life is friend or fiend. In spite of their growing affection, dogged by doubt and self-recriminations, Charlie is forced to deal with the horrors that haunt her dreams.
Against the lush artistic background of Turner’s somber paintings and Matheson’s brilliant watercolors, Charlie’s battle is waged in her own mind, caught between logic and the irrational fears, remnants of Kosovo, as well as a distrust of Alan’s intentions: “Trust was something she seemed to have mislaid along the way.” Seduced by the accoutrements of love and creativity, she must follow the twists of this confusing emotional maze until her demons are resolved.
By turns love story, mystery and the history of fine paper, the personal relationships of the protagonists lack subtlety, a black and white morality play with no middle ground. Although character development suffers in the author’s enthusiasm for drama, the lore of paper remains the most fascinating aspect of this novel.