Restoration – Olaf Olafsson

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Restoration, Olaf Olafsson’s novel about the perilous intersection of international art dealers, illicit loves and a hidden vault on a Tuscan estate during World War II, covers forgery, tragedy and broken promises—all badly in need of remorse and repair. Kristin is a young art school graduate with an uncanny talent for painstaking restoration of Renaissance art. Alice is a British expat in Italy’s upper crust, closed Anglo communities who breaks with her crowd to marry a native of Tuscany. Robert Marshall is a devious, self-absorbed, brilliant and globally respected art restorer and procurer who authenticates paintings by old masters. The Germans are collecting museum quality art as fast as they can find it and the risk of dabbling in that market is worth your life.

When Kristin despairs of her own talent and faces the fact that Marshall has used and betrayed her, she creates a “found” Caravaggio–with her own face–that fools the experts. Her intention is to humiliate Marshall but before she can reveal the truth, Marshall sells the nearly finished “restoration” to a highly placed Nazi collector and then prevails on Alice to hide it on her estate until it can be retrieved. Alice wants nothing to do with the painting but Marshall’s discovery of an affair that could wreck her troubled marriage gives him an unshakeable hold over her.

This is a wonderful set up for a taut, complex story with plenty of internal and external quandaries to be resolved as the Germans and the Allies close in on the estate. Kristin finds out the painting’s location and intends to destroy it but her train is bombed en route from Rome and her injury prevents a search for it. Alice is in mourning for her young son who dies of meningitis just before a group of orphans arrives at the estate in need of shelter. Her husband disappears abruptly and the horrors of war come to their Tuscan village. Hiding the painting is as dangerous as harboring partisans and no one is spared in the troop occupations and fierce battles that ensue.

Restoration is really well done—an absorbing read with interesting, intelligent and flawed characters, fascinating detail about art restoration and the clandestine trading and acquisition that typified war torn Europe, graphic recreations of local fighting and deadly strafing, portrayal of the intimate effects of battle on combatants and civilians, and believable maps of the terrain a heart wanders after it has been broken. Nothing can ever really be restored to its original state. Olafsson’s novel makes the case that the best we can do is muddle on, trying to find some beauty in the patched and damaged thing that is left to us, deferring to the art of illusion as a survival technique, to whatever extent we can.  

Restoration: A Novel   Olaf Olafsson | HarperCollins   2012

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