Executive Times

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Book Reviews

 

Unveiling by Suzanne M. Wolfe

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

 

 

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Restoration

 

Suzanne M. Wolfe’s debut novel, Unveiling, cleverly uses the motif of art conservation to reveal the personal redemption and transformation that we can need in our own lives. Protagonist Dr. Rachel Piers bears the scars of personal tragedy as she conducts her art restoration with skill. Both are unveiled during the course of the novel through well-timed exposition and descriptive language.

 

Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter VI, pp. 42-47:

 

The next day, on the way to the museum, Rachel pondered not so much the results of Donati’s tests which were what she had expected after her cursory examination of the triptych the day before, but his discovery several weeks ago that Persegati and the Eliot-Simpson Museum in Manhattan had ordered a private examination of the triptych not more than a month before Rachel was given the assignment. The results indicated the triptych was very possibly a lost work by Rogier Van der Weyden. Rachel heard the name like a suckerpunch to the gut. Rogier was one of the two most celebrated Northern Renaissance painters, the other being Jan van Eyck, and the discovery of a lost masterpiece by him was a career-making, once-in-a-lifetime event. Suspicion instantly replaced elation. Why had this been kept from her?

As soon as Donati left she picked up the phone and dialed New York. She was told the curator was in a meeting. Dissatisfied, she left a message.

Up until two, pacing back and forth, going over and over the significance of Donati’s news, trying to tie in Apex’s connection.

The report indicated that the painting had originated in Northern Europe and that the mix of pigments was similar to those favored in Rogier’s Bruges workshop, the busy port giving more access to a wider variety of pigment than in Brussels. Donati’s own tests confirmed this. But Rachel was acutely aware of how tenuous all this was. Despite the accuracy of the initial carbon 14 dating that put the triptych somewhere in the first half of the fifteenth century, the painter would remain unknown until the figures on the panel could be uncovered. But she could make no sense of Apex’s involvement, and Persegati’s. By five-thirty in the morning, she had made the decision to confront him with her knowledge of the report.

 

She was shown in by Persegati’s assistant who told her that he had just arrived and was in his office.

“But he asked not to disturbed,” she called after her as Rachel headed for the library.

“Slept well?” she said to Venus as she passed underneath the painting. She walked down the corridor leading off the library and, after a cursory knock, went straight in.

He was sitting at his desk, a paper knife hovering over a pile of letters in front of him. If he was irritated at her abrupt appearance he didn’t show it. He laid down the knife and stood up.

“Dr. Piers, you are early. What a pleasant surprise!” He gestured to a chair. “Coffee?”

“Please.” Anything to clear her head. The events of the night before as well as the wine on an empty stomach, had left her with a powerful emotional hangover.

Punching an intercom, Persegati spoke into it, then laid his hands on the arms of his chair, a medieval king about to give judgment, the gleam of a heavy gold signet ring on the little finger of his right hand completing the effect.

“You have something to say before the meeting?”

“Yes. Two things actually. One concerns the fact that you ordered an initial examination of the triptych, the results of which were kept from me and my team. And second, exactly what has Apex to do with this project? Satisfy me on these two points and there’s a chance I won’t be on the next plane back to New York.”

The assistant entered carrying a tray. The cups and saucers of fine china smattered about the rim with tiny blue flowers—forget-me-nots or cornflowers—rattled delicately as she set the tray down on the desk. Very English, very feminine, and totally at odds with the almost overbearing sparseness of the room. But not, Rachel was coming to realize, with Persegati’s tastes.

The assistant poured the coffee in a thin, dark stream, bruising the flowers to violet through the wafer transparency of the china. When the cups were full she handed one to Persegati and then one to Rachel. The assistant’s movements were efficient to the point of abrupt and some of the coffee slopped into the saucer and splashed onto Rachel’s skirt.

“Thank you, Anna. If Dr. Thompson and the others arrive, would you kindly ask them to wait in the library?”

She nodded and turned to leave.

“And Anna? I am expecting an important call from the monsignor at the Vatican museums, so please put it through as soon as it comes in.”

“Very good, Dr. Persegati.”

He studied his coffee cup for some moments. Its arrival had given him time to compose himself.

“I am, as you know, the director of the Roman State Institute for Conservation. In such capacity, I really have two jobs. One . . .“ he lifted a carefully manicured finger, “I am responsible for the conserva­tion of this city’s artifacts. But, as you are doubtless aware, that cannot be done without money.” He came round the front of the desk and topped up Rachel’s cup then leaned against the edge of the desk with his arms folded and chin down as if inspecting the tips of his shoes. The weak January sunlight glossed his oiled hair and picked out a burgundy thread in the weave of his suit.

Which brings me to the second point. I am a fund-raiser, Dr. Piers. A business man, if you will. As you are no doubt aware, without capital we cannot preserve our national treasures. It is my practice to conduct a preliminary analysis before going ahead with conservation. Depending on the results I then go to a certain individual or corporation and ask for sponsorship. In this case, I approached the Apex Corporation, which, as you may know, owns factories in Italy.”

Rachel shook her head. “No, I didn’t know. So when you thought the triptych could be a lost work of Rogier Van der Weyden you knew you could go after a big sponsor like Fujifilm and the Sistine Chapel,” she said.

Persegati sighed. “That is not the way I would have put it, Dr. Piers, but essentially, that is correct. Big business. . . . How can I say this delicately?” His hands fluttered in the air. “Big business prefers big names.”

“In return for what, might I ask?”

He walked around his desk as if he wanted to put himself out of range of her questions.

“Media rights?” She was fishing pretty wildly but she knew she must have snagged at something when she saw a look of irritation pass over his face.

“Dr. Piers, please do not think I have completely sold my soul to the devil. That is not the Italian way. We prefer something altogether more . . . indirect, let us say.”

“I understand.” Fujifilm had agreed to sponsor the restoration of Michelangelo’s fading masterpiece in return for exclusive film rights to the process. It had netted them enormous international prestige.

“In addition to paying for the restoration process, the Apex Corporation will buy the exclusive rights to sponsor an international exhibition in Tokyo, London, and New York should the triptych prove to be a Rogier. That exhibition will begin here at this museum and finish up at the Eliot-Simpson.”

That would be quite a coup, Rachel had to admit. And clever of him. The museum would get the media coverage without seeming to directly solicit it. Donati had been right and wrong at the same time. Apex would profit from the triptych but it was nothing so crude as money. Their name would be splashed all over the exhibition, and her own museum would share in the glory. Obviously that was the key to her own involvement.

Without hesitation she said, “My position here is compromised.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Authenticating the triptych as a Rogier is clearly in my own interests, and that of my museum.”

“Actually, the Apex Corporation specifically requested your involvement. They are extremely optimistic about your ability to authenticate it correctly. As I am, I assure you.”

“Nevertheless.” Rachel placed her cup and saucer on the desk and stood up.

“We did not want to prejudice your work by telling you beforehand,” he said in a more conciliatory tone.

“That hasn’t been a problem before. Besides, the work’s either by Rogier or it isn’t. Either way, the job’s the same.”

“Quite so, Dr. Piers. I admire your, how you say, rectitude.”

Rachel didn’t see that morality had anything to do with it. What concerned her was her professional integrity. She marveled at Persegati’s obtuseness, feigned or real she couldn’t tell.

“What will happen to the triptych afterwards?” Rachel asked. “Providing, of course, it turns out to be a Rogier. And if it isn’t a Rogier?”

Just then the phone rang.

“Ah, Monsignor. Just a moment, if you please.” Persegati put his hand over the mouthpiece. “I beg you to give some thought to what I have said. We would be desolated to lose your expertise on what may prove to be an historic project.”

 

Many female readers will empathize with Rachel Piers, both in the struggles she faces in her work life, especially with some men, and in the impact of scars from her personal life. Unveiling is well written and while the reading time will pass quickly, reflection about life and redemption will last for a long while.

 

Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004

 

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

in the January 2005 issue of Executive Times

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