The Very Picture of You
Isabel Wolff
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Buy *The Very Picture of You* by Isabel Wolff online

The Very Picture of You
Isabel Wolff
336 pages
October 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Finding a way to reconnect after abandonment is the affecting theme of Wolff’s latest novel. The central character, Ella, is an accomplished portrait painter who lost John, her real father, when she was very young. Finally, after years of misunderstandings, Ella is given the opportunity to make peace with him after he abandoned his family and migrated to Western Australia.

Ella is close to her mother, an elegant woman who once danced with the English National Ballet until a devastating accident derailed her career. Ella also has a healthy relationship with her stepfather, Roy, and her sister, Chloe, whom she has always looked out for. Her mother, however, has told her little of what happened all those years ago, except that it’s better that her natural father is out of their lives.

Ella has suffered for the lack of knowledge without really understanding the reason for her mother’s tight-lipped fortitude. All she has to remember are a series of pen and ink drawings, but they do little to counteract the knowledge that her father left her to live thousands of miles away. Ella is positive that what he did was not a mistake but a calculated, cruel choice. Over the years, John has made no attempt to stay in touch.

It all seems rather serendipitous when Ella gets an email from her father, telling her that he’d like to reconnect: there are things he wants to explain. He feels guilty, and he wants to make amends. Still, Ella's mother sticks hard to her story that John's betrayal was a terrible shock, abandoning and going so far away after she begged him not to leave them.

In Wolff’s fairy-tale story of marriages and affairs, the promises of true love are told in the silent brushstrokes of betrayal. Her heart torn, Ella is unable to reconnect with her father, instead finding solace in her portrait painting. Events set Ella on an uncertain path, however, when she’s asked by Chloe to paint her handsome fiance, Nate. After a quick engagement, Chloe is certain that Nate is "the one," but is Nate the loyal, genuine boyfriend that Chloe believes him to be?

The novel's symbolic heart comes from the gentle revelations of Ella's sitters: Celine, a beautiful Frenchwoman who has a bizarre attitude about having her portrait painted; Mike, a local politician whose strained demeanor hides an air of tragedy and sadness; and Iris, an extremely elegant Englishwoman in her eighties who beguiles Ella with memories of painter Guy Lennox. Ella revels in painting Iris's octogenarian lines and wrinkles.

Essentially a story of a love that has been ruptured and then restored, Wolff's characters are embedded with a stiff upper lip attitude typical of their class. The most interesting aspect of the novel is the author's exploration of the mechanics of portraiture - from the preliminary sketch to the beauty of composition to the blocking in of the main shapes as Ella's brush scrapes softly across the canvas.

As the wheels of Chloe’s wedding turn, the story culminates in mysteries, heartbreaks, and a few romances gone askew. Ella can hardly believe it when she finds herself navigating through the pathway of a new, daring romance. Wolff sketches her novel out, her pages blending in a delicate ochre wash, the finished tale a lovely, rewarding symbol of light and of love.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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