A real find: ‘The Gallery of Vanished Husbands’
Natasha Solomons, author of the bestselling novel “The House at Tyneford,” again mines her own family history to weave a compelling tale. “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands” takes its title from a real life newspaper column that ran each week in “The Jewish Daily Forward,” that begged missing husbands to return to their wives and families. The life of its main character, Juliet Montague, is inspired by that of Solomons’ own grandmother Rosie.
When Juliet Montague’s husband George absconded – taking with him a valued painting of her as a child and leaving her with two small children, she became a virtual widow. According to the laws of her conservative Jewish community, she is an “aguna,” a woman unable to divorce her husband. “Already the rabbis watched her with fretful eyes, afraid that she would bring the good name of the community into disrepute.”
Yet, Juliet’s life is about to change in 1958 when, on her thirtieth birthday, she decides on a whim to spend the money she had saved for a refrigerator on a painting. Painter Charlie Fusell doesn’t only paint her portrait – he enters into a partnership with Juliet to form a gallery. While untrained, Juliet has an eye and a passion for painting:
I’ve not been to art college. . . I have no qualifications at all. . . But when I look at a painting or a sculpture or sketch, I get a feeling in my. . .belly that tells me, “Yes, this is the real thing.”
The London gallery is a success, and Juliet falls for painter Max Langford. Traumatized by World War II, Max seldom leaves his Dorset home. “Taking a lover was appealing, but she did not want a husband, old or new.”
When word comes, though, that George is living in California, Juliet, Max, and her children set sail for America in hot pursuit. Max, however, knows he shouldn’t have left the safety of Dorset and sails back to England rather than accompanying them to LA. Juliet doesn’t exactly find George, but she learns a lot about him:
She wasn’t an aguna or a chained woman or a living widow, she was something worse – a bigamist and an adulteress.
Despite a full life – a life that she wouldn’t have lived had George not vanished –with a as Juliet grows old, she continues to wonder why George left her. Unlike many of the women whose husbands’ photographs made up the rogues’ gallery of vanished husbands, she will find an answer in time.
“The Gallery of Vanished Husbands” beautifully contrasts the London art world of the 60s and 70s, where there were no rules, with the conscripted world of Juliet’s conservative Jewish community. This is a wonderfully evocative and moving love story filled with a host of memorable characters. Unlike her Shakespearean namesake, Juliet Montague is not a tragic figure. Rather, she is a woman who rises above her circumstances to live a meaningful life filled with love – and art.
“The Gallery of Vanished Husbands” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.