Modern fiction about women is usually thought of as experiencing something of a boom these days. And of course, in a way, this is true. Not only are female novelists and poets quite prominent, but there has been a deliberate, and somewhat successful, attempt to recover women writers from earlier ages who were unjustly neglected. Whether the actual works are really uncovering lost greatness or breaking new ground, however, is another matter. Most of us are not exactly driven to keep up with developments in this field and cannot help suspecting, perhaps unjustly, that a lot of what gets published by or about modern women tends to orbit rather narrowly around certain approved feminist themes.
It is something of a happy surprise, then, to come upon a new novel that deals with some expected female themes but gives them unexpected turns. Suzanne M. Wolfe’s Unveiling (Paraclete Press, 2004) attempts a difficult melding of two large stories. Her heroine, Rachel Piers, is an art restorer whose own life needs perhaps even more work of recovery and repair than the 15th-century altar triptych in Rome that she has been asked to work on. Her employers hope it is an unknown work by a Dutch Renaissance master—not so that the work will delight the people in the out-of- the-way Roman church, but so that the art world can exploit the discovery financially and ultimately make sure that it winds up in some prestigious collection.
It’s a good thing, of course, that museums exist. But this altarpiece, the deposition of Christ’s body from the Cross, will lose its soul if it’s moved from its earthy Roman setting to the rarefied atmosphere of the international aesthetes. Still, Rachel and her staff—including a man we initially know only by his last name, Donati, who becomes much more than a professional colleague to her—labor in good faith at the restoration and identification work. The artistic detective work reveals something surprising for the restorers and their backers, but only a spoilsport would reveal the solution to the mystery to anyone who has not read through the novel. Suffice it to say that the answers to the various questions about the work have a significance far beyond the scope of art history. They point to the importance of, not merely the escape from, suffering.
Rachel has had a hard time of it. First, she suffers a miscarriage shortly after arriving in Rome—the first hint she’s had that she’s even pregnant. It leaves her weak and dependent on several recent Roman acquaintances in more ways than one. In the process, we learn that she was also sexually abused as a teenager by her stepfather, a common enough occurrence for many young women now that divorce and moms with lusty new husbands and boyfriends have multiplied. But Rachel is no textbook feminist who blames everything on men. When she discovered she was pregnant from the abuse, she was betrayed by her mother, too, and understands it in ways that are almost never talked about: “I blame her for the abortion more. Getting rid of it—her grandchild—was final proof she would do anything to preserve appearances, even if it meant sacrificing me.” After that, she says, “I gave up.” Donati tries to argue that maybe the older woman was just afraid. Rachel’s simple but devastating answer: “She was my mother.”
This episode occurs shortly after Rachel and her team have uncovered the figures in the central panel of the triptych. A reader who does not pay careful attention will not notice the details of the interplay here. But like the flashbacks in The Passion of the Christ, these art-history passages are not present for the sake of mere color. If you are talking about mothers in this context, you almost can’t help but think about the Mother, who is present in that central panel of Jesus being taking down from the Cross and now stands revealed: “A mother’s face, twisting with anguish as it looked down at the body of her child, knowing it for the body she had delivered into the filthy straw, the body she had bathed and suckled, the body she had caught in her arms as it tottered its first steps towards her, crowing in triumph. It was the face of a woman who knows she is holding her child for the last time.” And we might add, did not care a whit about preserving appearances, even after one of the most humiliating forms of suffering and death known to the ancient world.
A great strength of this novel is that Wolfe does not try to push these parallels and insights too far. Rachel is in many ways a typical modern woman, very far from any deep religious faith or connection to the Church, except through art. She arrives in Rome already hurting from a recent breakup with her husband, a modern architect whom she married to help stabilize what she knew was a very unsubstantial life of total work. But the architect is part of an insubstantial and exploitative art world and, the reader guesses, he was a remedy far worse than the initial disease. Wolfe has a very vivid visual imagination and possesses a gift for conveying Rachel’s inner states by describing outer objects. In the very first paragraph, for example, Rachel enters the courtyard of the Roman apartment house she will live in and “above her head a series of clotheslines divided the sky into pieces of a puzzle.” As we come to understand later, solving the inner and the outer puzzles will become the whole point of the story.
But such resolution as occurs is modest and tentative. Rachel slowly feels her way into some of the humane realities she senses in the Roman church where her triptych sits and in some of the average Romans she comes to know. But there is no beatific vision or complete restoration of the many damaged threads in her life’s fabric, and that is very much to the good. It makes her gains, modest as they may be, all the more believable. Early on, “Hooke’s Law,” which she learned in high school, pops into her mind: that a spring stretched too far can never resume its original shape. Yet real recuperations still remain possible: “The muted but steady life of the church soothed her, made her feel she inhabited a context, one that was as vital as it was ordinary. It gave her a feeling that art was not to be found in museums and galleries so much as in the stuff of everyday life.”
And the everyday life that Rachel prizes is ordinary but not without its proper dignities. She is particularly impressed with Donati’s widowed mother and the old Italian women that resemble her: “Her movements, deliberate, measured, never fussy, possessed a capacity for stillness that Rachel recognized in Donati the first time she saw him on the steps of the church. The women Rachel saw in the church everyday were the same, the low recitation of prayers, the metallic chink as they dropped a coin in the poor box on their way out, the self-effacing, generous remembrance of another.”
There are also several serious weak-nesses among this novel’s strengths. Wolfe seems very shy—almost gun-shy—in approaching the inevitable love scenes, a relief from the ready graphicness of many modern novels, but a reticence that leaves the relationship between Rachel and Donati hanging. There are also quite a few undigested patches of dialogue that read more like what a writer is expected to write about certain contemporary relationships than authentic interchanges between these particular human beings. The bits of Italian in the text should have been checked by someone. And even the overarching parallels between Rachel’s life and the restoration of the triptych seem to be groping toward a bigger resolution than Wolfe is able to get a complete grip on for the present moment. But all these are secondary shortcomings, almost to be expected in an ambitious first novel that may portend still greater things.