Alternating Between Nineteenth Century England And Present Day New York, This Is The Story Of Renowned British Painter J M W Turner And His Circle Of Patrons And Lovers It Is Also The Story Of Henry Leiden, A Middle Aged Family Man With A Troubled Marriage And A Dead End Job, Who Finds His Life Transformed By His Discovery Of Turner S The Center Of The World, A Mesmerizing And Unsettling Painting Of Helen Of Troy That Was Thought To Have Been Lost Forever This Painting Has Such Devastating Erotic Power That It Was Kept Hidden For Almost Two Centuries, And Was Even Said To Have Been Destroyeduntil Henry Stumbles Upon It In A Secret Compartment At His Summer Home In The Adirondacks Though He Knows It Is An Object Of Immense Value, The Thought Of Parting With It Is Unbearable Henry Is Transfixed By Its Revelation Of A Whole Other World, One Of Transcendent Light, Joy, And Possibility Back In The Nineteenth Century, Turner Struggles To Create The Center Of The World, His Greatest Painting, But A Painting Unlike Anything He Or Anyone Else Has Ever Attempted We Meet His Patron, Lord Egremont, An Aristocrat In Whose Palatial Home Turner Talks Freely About His Art And His Beliefs We Also Meet Elizabeth Spencer, Egremont S Mistress And Turner S Muse, The Model For His Helen Meanwhile, In The Present, Henry Is Relentlessly Trailed By An Unscrupulous Art Dealer Determined To Get His Hands On The Painting At Any Cost Filled With Sex, Beauty, And Love Of All Kinds , This Richly Textured Novel Explores The Intersection Between Art And Eroticism Poorly written, poorly motivated characters, cardboard descriptions and a painting humiliating the main character What s not to love I m a half rabid Turner fan and ran across a mention of this book in the general info swirling around Mike Leigh s biopic coming to the US soon Mr Turner It won the Palme d Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival So I was expecting too much, something akin to standing in front of a Turner in a quiet museum gallery But this book is another case of Great Idea Indifferent Execution It reminds me of Nancy Horan s 2007 bestseller, Loving Frank, about the complicated love life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright That one was painful to read the conception of the story was truly brilliant, but why couldn t it have come into the head of a better writer The Center of the World is told in the same plodding tone The characters are stubbornly one dimensional and colorless so unlike a Turner and the reader has to bear up under numerous repetitions of the same action from supposedly different POVs The voices all sound the same, whether coming to us from 18th century upper crust England or 21st century middle class America, and none of them has a whit of poetic brilliance Over and over again the author makes excuses for his own pale descriptive abilities by putting apologetic words in the mouths of his stiff and vapid characters They tell us how little they can convey their sense of wonder, of color and power, how powerless they are to say what they feel So the brilliant promise of the story escapes into helplessness It s like looking of a copy of a copy of a copy of a Turner I admire Mr Van Essen for the keen imagination it took to conceive of this story, the research he did to bring the tools to the table, and the fact that he got it beautifully published But oh it disappoints. In preparation for seeing the JMW Turner paintings in the Tate in London I went to the library site to find a book about him I found this It is a nicely constructed story of a secret painting and its provenance from the time it was painted till now An absorbing audiobook that was part historic fiction and part detective novel I recommend it and an entertaining read but will need to cast my net wider to learn about Turner. The Center of the World is a sweeping tale about a fictional painting of the same name by J.M.W Turner depicting an erotic scene of Helen of Troy The story shifts back and forth from 19th century England where we witness the creation of the painting and present day New England where a married man bored with his life stumbles across it hidden away in his family s lake house The existence of the painting has been kept secret since its creation, but rumors of it have intrigued many people over the years including an art collector dealer who sets his sights on finding it.I really enjoyed this novel and suspect that anyone who has a love of art or background in art history would appreciate it even than I did I did find it a little ridiculous how people s lives were completely taken over by this painting, but I suppose it is a commentary on the power of art in our lives There is no actual painting so there s nothing to actually see, but I wish I could have seen it Despite the many descriptions of it throughout the book I had a hard time visualizing what it would have looked like. If I could give this book SIX stars on Goodreads, I would As I grow older, I find myself getting and picky about what I m reading This novel was, according to Kirkus, one of the most overlooked books of 2013 It shouldn t be This is an absolutely WONDERFUL book The story centers around, The Center of the World, a JMW Turner painting which, alas, does not exist This is a fascinating book that goes back and forth in several different time periods from the point of view of several different people However, it doesn t matter because they are all bound together by this magnificent painting that was a portrait of Helen of Troy commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Egremont In the novel, the Earl has commissioned the painting as an extraordinary portrait of his mistress, Mrs Spencer The painting is extraordinary according to the book It changes whomever looks at it The earl keeps it locked in a cupboard As Mrs Spencer says toward the end of her life, it is the light that she sees The painting is later owned by wealthy financier, Cornelius Rhinebeck, who also keeps it locked in a cupboard in a private cabin and tells no one, not even any family members, about it The book explores the line between art and eroticism Generations have considered the painting to be pornographic which is why the owners have kept it hidden Then there s Henry Leiden who has inherited a small house on a lake in the Adirondacks that was part of the Rhinebeck estate before it was boarded up Henry and his wife are having marital problems His father has died leaving him nothing but the cabin and a lot of junk He s avoided cleaning it out, but now decides to tackle it It s on the water, and his wealthy neighbor offers him 1M for it He could use the money, but is not sure he wants to accept the offer While moving some junk, he finds a closed cabinet When he opens it, there is the painting framed with a brass plaque saying The Center of the World by JMW Turner Soon he is being pursued by an unscrupulous art dealer Despite the fact that an unknown Turner could easily fetch 16M, he can t bear to be parted from it, such is the effect that this painting has on him as well This is officially my favorite book of the year It s absolutely WONDERFUL. It s a book about art and obsession, focusing on a painting of hypnotic intensity that transforms any observer It s also a charming portrait of J.M.W Turner, the man, and a glimpse into his time, and a love story set in 21st Century Princeton, New Jersey, and 19th Century England It s an elegant book with a simple, but attractive plot, centered on the long lost painting The Center of the World and the people who made it possible, and those who lived much later, but could not get it out of their minds. I do love a good novel about art and artists, and this one doesn t disappoint It centers around a mysterious, marvelous painting by J.M.W Turner, moves back and forth between the present and 1865, and involves a host of characters some fictitious, some not It s a lot of fun, and also a bit deeper than it lets on until the end, which was a good surprise Good summer reading Whatever that means Stay tuned for a detailed piece on the book and its author in Bloom and The Millions in a couple of weeks. The Center of the World is the story of a painting that doesn t exist but by the time I turned the last page, I wished it did.The painting in question bears the same title as the novel, and it is a work of both erotic power and remarkable beauty and detail Thomas Van Essen leads us, deliberately and steadily, through the stories of the different people in different times who experience the painting From its inspiration and creation by J.M.W Turner at Lord Egremont s estate in the 19th century to its discovery hidden away in a humble barn in the 21st century, we see how it changes hands over the years, and how each person who sees it is changed in their turn.Van Essen introduces us to Turner, a well known figure in the art world, as a very flawed man a drinker and a man not very skilled in the social graces, a painter skilled at landscapes than portraits, but nevertheless a master of capturing light on canvas In The Center of the World he creates his masterwork, a sensual, scandalous portrait of Helen of Troy awaiting her lover Paris, which only a few will ever see or even know of Those who do experience it are always changed from Lord Egremont, Turner s patron for a time, to Elizabeth, his inspiration and model for Helen, to Henry, who finds the painting while cleaning out a barn on his father s property, to the art dealer who has been looking for the painting for much of his life There are others the painting touches along the way, and each has their story to tell.The mastery in The Center of the World lies in how these stories connect, and how Turner s masterwork is revealed to us slowly, steadily, instilled with a sense of wonder and mystery Through letters between intimate friends, through business communications, through diary entries we learn of the history of the painting through the eyes of those who experienced it It s a deliberate and steady journey, at the end of which we feel as if we ve seen it for ourselves, and come to understand a little about both the process and the possibility of art.If a painting like the one described in The Center of the World truly existed, it could change the world I would dearly love to see itin these pages, I very nearly did. Story of the creation of a JMW Turner painting that doesn t actually exist, and of the lives of two of the people who owned it briefly
Thomas Van Essen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned his PhD in English from Rutgers University He lives in New Jersey with his family The Center of the World is his first novel.
- 384 pages
- The Center of the World
- Thomas Van Essen
- 13 March 2017 Thomas Van Essen