I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter – Lynn Cullen

Cornelia van Rijn lives in dire, dirty poverty with a genius who acts more mad every day. Her mother is dead of plague, her beloved brother Titus marries well and leaves her to look after Rembrandt. The painter is incorrigible and the only attention he pays to his daughter is to criticize and to foil her at every turn. Cornelia knows everything there is to know about painting but girls don’t paint. And girls whose fathers paint strange, dark, thickly-pasted work that no one will buy have few prospects. Then Cornelia meets Carel, the son of a wealthy shipping family, who loves painting and who is attracted to the proud, shabby girl with more on her mind than fans, gloves and flirtations.

Lynn Cullen has sketched a world rich in detail and rife with tragedy for her 17th century heroine. I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a convincing historical YA that is a pleasure to read and fascinating to unravel. Who is the strange man Cornelia sees wandering past their house so often while her mother is alive? Why does her father ignore her and why did he never marry her mother? How does he keep painting, day after day, claiming to channel visions from a God he doesn’t even believe in? How hard would it be to turn out the light, smooth paintings that collectors would actually buy? And why does Rembrandt forbid Cornelia to see Carel, the only bright spot of hope in her drab life?

Plague revisits the city. Rembrandt’s paintings are refused and he has only one pupil left, the earnest Neel who worships him and is drawn to Cornelia. As she is pulled deeper and deeper into a mystery about her life she can’t begin to unravel, she discovers a nude portrait of her mother hidden in the attic and is shocked at the impropriety and the implication. Her beloved mother was just Rembrandt’s nude model and lover. No wonder the painter treats her with disdain. And yet, more complex explanations seethe just under the surface.

Very good YA. The historical is the reason for the story so this is not just a mindless boyfriend novel to hook teenage girls. Cornelia has more than a prom date at stake and the deaths in her world aren’t just a reaction to dysfunction. Yet her issues, the impossibility of claiming a career as an artist, the uncertainty of her place in a family, the confusion about who she really is, are as urgent and inescapable as any coming-of-age story. This one gains some heft from its undeniably serious core. A fairly quick read and an enjoyable one. I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a book title that contains a clue to the momentous choice Cornelia will have to make.

I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter   Lynn Cullen | Bloomsbury   2007

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