Young Rachel Piers has a great job --- as a senior medievalist at a Manhattan art museum. Having firmly established her reputation by restoring and reconstructing an altarpiece discovered in Bavaria, Rachel travels to Rome to tackle her new assignment: For her employer and a corporate sponsor --- "an American conglomerate eager to make a name for itself as a patron of the arts" --- she is to restore a sixteenth-century triptych housed in and beloved by the congregation of Our Lady of Sorrows church.
As for Rachel's personal life, "Everything solid in her life had come adrift." She is reeling from a recent divorce, but, we're told, there was "a ghost in her life long before" her marriage to Mark. She hopes working on this new project will "perform its usual magic, take her to a place where Mark, her mother, the mess she had made of her life would drop away, become irrelevant. Her ability to lose herself in her work was one of Mark's complaints during their marriage."
In Rome, Rachel and European colleagues set up shop onsite in the church, sensing their presence and work will disrupt the congregation less than the triptych's removal. The painting is so dirty its subject is obscured. Is it a Flight into Egypt? A Crucifixion? No, Rachel soon determines. It's a Lamentation --- Mary, the Apostle John, and other mourners around Jesus' corpse.
Conflicts arise for Rachel, as she realizes that her sponsors suspect that --- and want her to determine if --- the triptych is a lost work of the great Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden. She knows what they want her to say. She also knows that if she authenticates said origin, the art-piece will be taken from its church setting. Rachel is not a practicing believer, but she is a seeker. (This is not a book for readers who need Christian protagonists who always so no.) As she cleans and unveils more and more of the painting and studies its characters' poses and expressions, as she loses and mourns a child she didn't realize she was carrying, as she falls in love with a compassionate colleague, she unveils the traumas that have haunted her personal life. Well before the final page, we see the Spirit at work in her life and work.
Suzanne Wolfe has done a great job of setting up the conflicts, of describing Rome and taking us into Rachel's private world and the world of art restoration and patronage. But I could have wished for a better-drawn conclusion to this novel. The execution of a who-painted-it subplot felt unnecessarily confusing. I hope Wolfe delights readers with a second novel but advise she stay away from the mystery genre.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on April 1, 2004