The self-declared hero of Pictures At An Exhibition could be justifiably accused of ingratitude: The son of French Jews driven into hiding during World War II, he and his parents survive undetected, although their livelihood—a cache of paintings dating back three generations—has been looted. Returning those paintings to his father becomes Max Berenzon’s obsession; if only Sara Houghteling’s debut novel took his search as seriously.
Max always believed he was being groomed to join the family business of art dealing, a tradition stretching back to his grandfather’s art shop, where Renoir and Pissarro used to pay for their supplies with paintings. Instead, Max is packed off to medical school, and the job he thought was his is filled by Rose, a gallery assistant from the Louvre. But Max’s growing infatuation with Rose and his stubborn desire to prove he has an eye for masterpieces is interrupted by the German invasion as the Berenzon family escapes to southern France to seek shelter with a friendly farmer. After the war, when they find out their secret store of paintings was discovered and appropriated by Nazi troops, Max chooses to stay in Paris and look for the family treasures against his father’s wishes.
Houghteling’s fixation on the details of antebellum life in Paris, whose exploration consumes the bulk of the book, mirrors Max’s fixation as he visits the dealers his father used to compete with at art auctions, and scours the new galleries for works that bear proof of having been pilfered from some of Europe’s finest collections. It’s his own personal reconstruction effort, even as his quest eventually proves what his father knew: Max’s love of art makes him a good curator, but a bad dealer, attached as he is to the Manets and Picassos of his youth. Likewise, his once-orderly plan to recover the family treasures becomes a parade of postwar fascination broken up by expository fits, in which a rush of new information interrupts what was a pleasant trip through, for example, underground Orthodox Jewish circles in postwar Paris. When that search is effectively invalidated, not even Max’s efforts to keep Rose from disappearing again under the stigma of her own wartime secrets can hold up an ending groaning under the weight of its own morals. As a child, Max was obsessed with a Manet still life his father told him was unsellable; by the end of Pictures At An Exhibition, its significance to Max and his father has been dropped just like the rest of the plot.