Like the art work that forms its subject, Suzanne Wolfe’s debut novel Unveiling has many layers. There are elements of mystery, romance, family, spirituality, and even politics. Given its novella like length (less than 200 pages), however, none of the elements are dealt with in any sustained way. Rather, each is touched upon and/or glanced off of to produce a glimpse into the deeper issues; an imaginative and interesting glimpse but only a glimpse.
The mystery that forms the story’s basic structure involves recently divorced art restorationist Dr. Rachel Piers and a once forgotten triptych that may or not be a Flemish masterpiece. Rachal leaves New York for Rome to take on the potentially explosive project. Much like a forensic crime detective, Rachel and her team must use their skills to peal back the painting’s layers in order to uncover its past. Unlike murder victims, however, they must do this without destroying the delicate work of art. This element relies heavily on the details of art restoration and research to drive the plot and provide the clues.
Romace is introduced when, despite a troubled past, Rachel finds herself depending on, and growing closer to, her colleague on the project; an Italian expert known only as Donati. The city of Rome – its churches, streets, markets, and restaurants – and the intimacy of working together in close quarters provides the backdrop here.
Family is a theme woven into the story as well. Rachael, besides her recent and difficult divorce, has an ugly secret in her past and a rocky relationship with her mom. Not exactly a good foundation for stable relationships. This is contrasted with Donati’s close friends and family in Rome including his gracious mother.
Spiritual issues are also raised as Rachael attempts to make sense of the religious tradition that is both the subject of and the background for the painting and the church that houses it. Her personal issues come to the fore as she seeks to understand both artist and faith. Her growing sympathy and appreciation for the strength of both help her to deal with her past and the crisis that seems to be over-taking her.
There are even some political themes mixed into this short work. Rachael must deal with the uncomfortable reality of corporate money with strings attached and what some view as the cultural theft that results. Interestingly, Donati is portrayed as an idealistic socialist in an age of capitalism. Also, dealt with – at least tangentially – is the male dominated world of Western Art. The ending involves a twist that seems intended to tweak this assumption.
So, what to make of all of this? In many ways, Unveiling is an imaginative and enjoyable read. The process of art restoration is interesting and holds the plot together. Rachael is a sympathetic character and Wolfe paints (sorry about the pun) a beautiful picture of Rome and its people. The atmosphere she creates has an almost haunting quality as the pain and doubt of Rachael’s past mingles with the romance and mystery of the Eternal City. Just as the darkness seems ready to gain the upper hand, however, Wolfe introduces the possibility of grace and redemption. The romantic and spiritual explorations are handled deftly and with a light touch.
If there is a weakness to the work it is its fragmentary nature. All of the above issues are introduced or at least touched upon and yet none of them are resolved or explored in depth. There is something natural about this to a degree; the ending is somewhat stoic and contingent rather than “happily ever after.” But the novel’s length and style still seem to leave a lot of loose ends. Even the artistic mystery that is solved seems rather forced or anti-climatic; as if Wolfe figured out how to solve the puzzle and rushed to get it down. With so many potential cliches (insecure girl fleeing her past, the romance of Rome, a sensitive and caring man, corporate bad guys, etc) Wolfe flirts with writing by numbers or plot points.
As a result, if you like your stories deep and fully formed you might be frustrated with Wolfe’s light brush strokes (I can’t help myself with these puns). Wolfe manages to hold it together, however, with graceful prose, a strong setting, and an interesting subject. Thus, caveats aside, Unveiling is an enjoyable and promising first novel. I look forward to reading more from Wolfe and seeing how her skills develop and what ideas she tackles next.