Cary's Shelf: September '21

Published Monday, October 4, 2021
Painting Characters: Four Books

One of my favorite old movies is The Picture of Dorian Gray -- the 1945 version starring Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, and a very young Angela Lansbury. The movie is based on an Oscar Wilde novel (a "moral fantasy") of the same name, about a young man who sells his soul to remain forever young and handsome, while a painted portrait of him absorbs his evil ways and grows older, more hideous and vile. I was reminded of this classic while scrolling through my monthly CrimeReads email and clicked on a blog post written by author Katie Lattari, whose debut novel Dark Things I Adore also explores the nefarious side of the artistic muse. I'm sharing a few of Lattari's suggestions for other books in which "paintings become portals for the revelation of character," one of which, Duma Key by Stephen King, I've read with great pleasure as well. Give one or all of them a try!

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

A promising young man, Dorian Gray, has his portrait painted. Dorian wishes for eternal youth, musing how nice it would be to have the passing of time, an any vices he wishes to partake in, be reflected upon the painting rather than his physical body. A mysterious statue of a cat in the painting appears to grant his wish. As the years go by, and people marvel at his unchanged appearance, Dorian hides the corrupted, spellbound painting so no one will discover his secret.

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To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s novel explores the nature of art and the problem of individual perception. Invited as one of many guests and family members to the well-to-do Ramsay’s summer home on the Isle of Skye, Lily Briscoe, a young uncertain painter attempts a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James. Briscoe finds herself plagued by doubts throughout the novel, doubts largely fed by the claims of another guest who asserts that women can neither paint nor write. Years later, on a second visit to the Ramsay home, Lily finally attempts to complete the painting she has held in her mind for so long. She reconsiders her memory of the Ramsay family, balancing the multitude of impressions from ten years ago in an effort to reach towards an objective truth about Mrs. Ramsay and life itself. Upon finishing the painting, just as a new set of guests are arriving, Lily realizes that she is happy with her work this time, and that the execution of her vision is more important to her than the idea of leaving some sort of legacy behind.

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Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood

Elaine is a Canadian painter of some renown who, at 50, has returned to her childhood city of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The provincial city of her youth has become metropolitan in the intervening years, but in the week she is there her interest in the city's new galleries and restaurants and shops and, in many ways, in the retrospective itself, is only glancing. Her focus, and the novel's, is all on the past, on those images that surface unexpectedly, relentlessly, amid the glitz of the transformed city, images of the dead, of a lost time, and of Cordelia, her childhood friend and tormentor -- the very images that haunt her art.

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Duma Key, by Stephen King

After a construction accident, in which he loses his right arm, and his divorce, Edgar Freemantle moves from Minnesota to Florida’s Duma Key to begin what his psychiatrist describes as a "geographic cure." Edgar rediscovers his love of painting and finds that he is good at it, but before too long he notices that his paintings seem to have something lurking within them. On Duma Key he also meets Wireman, a kindred spirit seeking refuge there as a caretaker for wealthy Elizabeth Eastlake. Elizabeth's past also contains painful memories, which surface to bring all three of them together to face an evil entity their kinship has awakened.

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About the Author

Cary is our Development & Outreach Librarian. Her idea of a perfect day is a complete stereotype: reading or watching British crime fiction with a cup of hot tea close at hand, her favorite quilt, and her cat Clio on her lap.