The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

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9780142180549: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

A moving story of family and a life-long love affair in 1950s London, from the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford.

London, 1958. It's the eve of the sexual revolution, but in Juliet Montague's conservative Jewish community where only men can divorce women, she ­finds herself a living widow, invisible. Ever since her husband disappeared seven years ago, Juliet has been a hardworking single mother of two and unnaturally practical. But on her thirtieth birthday, that's all about to change. A wealthy young artist asks to paint her portrait, and Juliet, moved by the powerful desire to be seen, enters into the burgeoning art world of 1960s London, which will bring her fame, fortune, and a life-long love affair.

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About the Author:

Natasha Solomons is a screenwriter and the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, and The Song of Hartgrove Hall. She lives in Dorset, England, with her husband and young son.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CATALOGUE ITEM 1

Woman with a Bowl of Apples (a.k.a.The Fridge), Charlie Fussell, Oil on Canvas, 26 x 46in, 1958

It was juliet Montague’s thirtieth birthday. This did not worry her unduly, although she conceded that other women in her position might well be disconcerted. She examined her feelings with her usual frankness, but concluded that she felt just as befuddled sliding out of bed at half past six as she had the day before, and when she dressed the children for school she felt no sudden urge to reach for the cooking sherry. Thirty, Juliet decided, was the point in her life when a woman is at her handsomest. She might not have the flush of her teens or the swagger of her twenties, but at thirty a woman has a directness in her eye. Juliet Montague did anyhow. She knew exactly what she wanted.

She wanted to buy a refrigerator.

That morning was wet and unseasonably cold, but Juliet tried not to take it personally. It seemed unfair to have rain on one’s birthday, and yet she supposed every day was somebody’s birthday and if it never rained on birthdays England would be a desert, and Leonard wouldn’t have anywhere to sail his model boat. Resigned, she buttoned her mackintosh, fastened her scarf tight about her throat and darted around puddles the colour of milky tea as she hurried to the station, uncertain as usual if she would make her train. Juliet lost time, mislaying minutes and even the odd hour, the way her father spilled loose change from his trouser pockets. The freezing rain sliced against her cheeks and in half a minute the wind blew her wretched umbrella inside out.

Yet by the time the train was pulling into Charing Cross, the winter’s morning had been transformed into a spring afternoon. The laundered sky stretched a taut blue above Trafalgar Square, while shuffling pigeons lined up along Nelson’s outstretched arm to dry out in the sunshine like so many pairs of socks. The high puffs of white cloud looked just like the ones Leonard drew in the pictures that Juliet pinned to the corkboard in the kitchen. She glanced at her watch, wondering whether there was time to slip into the National Gallery and visit a few old friends before her shopping trip. The last time she had visited, she’d been caught by a sunflower and misplaced the rest of the afternoon. She’d watched the canvas until the yellow paint began to vibrate and tremble in waves like liquid sunshine, falling out of the frame and spilling onto the gallery floor. On the way home she’d bought sunflowers and sat with Frieda at the kitchen table for nearly an hour watching them in their glass vase to see if all yellow shook if only you watched for long enough.

Feeling her resolve weaken, she jumped on board the first bus going by – which turned out to be going in exactly the wrong direction, but it was such a lovely afternoon she didn’t mind in the least. The prospect of a walk beside the park was just right for a birthday. She pictured the neat pound notes and tumbling coins inside her purse and felt a tingle of exhilaration in her chest. Twenty-one guineas. She’d not had that much money to spend since George left. That had happened on her birthday too. And, she thought, as she dodged the spray thrown up by a rushing taxi, at first it had not even been such a bad birthday – she had not known then that George wasn’t coming back. She’d only been irritated he had forgotten it was her birthday. Not a card, not even a bunch of flowers from the garden (he’d given her one the year before and she’d been touched by the bouquet of black tulips, pleased he’d remembered they were her favourite, until she’d looked out of the kitchen window and seen he’d lopped the heads off all the flowers in her pots by the back door). Her mind tripped down familiar lanes. If only he’d left a note. He could have written it inside a birthday card, killing two birds with one stone: ‘Darling, Many Happy Returns. By the way, I’m off . . .’ Juliet smoothed the silk of her scarf to soothe her thoughts and determined to think of other things; nothing must spoil today. She’d saved so carefully and at last she was going to be a thoroughly modern woman, or at least one not quite so far behind the times. No more fussing with the stupid icebox or leaving bottles of milk on the windowsill outside to chill on winter days and having to buy fish or meat on the afternoon one intended to eat it. She knew how Leonard longed for a television set – for a while now he’d been cultivating friends who possessed one, and when he returned from their houses his cheeks were flushed and he was very quiet, polishing his little round spectacles on his school tie even more than usual, silently rehearsing the wonders of what he had seen. Juliet remained resolute; however enthralling the television might be, it was a luxury and a fridge was essential. Frieda and Leonard watched with fierce solemnity as at the end of each week she dropped another handful of coins into the old custard tin stashed on the top shelf of the larder. They’d not been terribly excited at first: Leonard puzzled that anyone should save for anything other than dinky cars or televisions and Frieda, who spent all her pocket money in the sweet shop the afternoon she was given it, thought of the tin-money in terms of penny sugar mice queuing nose-to-string-tail – she was quite certain it could buy enough mice to stretch all the way to Bognor Regis (a place she could not point to on the map, but which signified an almost infinite distance from Chislehurst).

Frieda was right – the money in the custard tin represented all sorts of pleasures not taken. They had bought cheap seats behind a pillar for Peter Pan and Juliet had nearly cried when Leonard had slumped with disappointment, unable to glimpse Peter swinging across the stage, cutlass between his teeth. For a month they had had meat for supper only three times a week (twice at home and once at Grandma’s on Friday night). Juliet had tried sneaking into the ordinary butchers on the high street to buy the not-so- dear, non-kosher kind, but Mrs Epstein had caught her coming out and told Juliet’s mother, who’d been so upset at the thought of her daughter risking her soul for scrag-end of mutton that Juliet had promised never to do it again. Frieda and Juliet each needed new clothes, though not underthings as Juliet had decided she could endure all manner of privation as long as her knickers were pretty, even if no one would see her in them again. She refused to be one of those women whom the Mrs Epsteins of the world stared at and shook their heads at, muttering with a twist of satisfaction, ‘Ach, she was such a lovely thing, but didn’t she let herself go after the business with her husband?’ Now, at least, when they glared at her with hostile pity, she could think of her silk knickers and smile back.

Her parents had given her the last ten guineas at dinner on Saturday night. Mr Greene slid the notes across the table to Leonard (‘Keep them safe for your mother now . . .’) while Mrs Greene watched her daughter a little unhappily and wondered between mouthfuls of chicken, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to buy a nice bit of jewellery for your birthday?’ Juliet shook her head, determined to be sensible. She knew that her newly minted practicality made her parents sad. On the one hand, they were terribly proud of the way she managed. ‘It’s not easy what you do, Fidget,’ said her father, toasting her with his weekly schnapps. On the other, she knew that they missed the decidedly impractical girl who yearned for tennis lessons one week and a vegetable patch in which to grow rhubarb the next. They wanted her to be showered with golden trinkets and not scrimp for fridges. One Friday evening Mrs Greene confided to Juliet that she believed herself responsible for what she preferred to call ‘the unfortunate business’. She confessed, after drinking an uncharacteristic sherry, that she believed it was entirely due to Juliet’s name. They had intended to call her Ethel, a good sensible name for the sort of no-nonsense young woman who liked to weed and wore brown shoes and never forgot to telephone her mother before Shabbos, but bobbing amid the flotsam and jetsam of good feeling following the birth of her only child, Mrs Greene had an attack of romance (the only one she ever suffered in her life, if truth be told) and found herself naming the baby Juliet. Somehow a girl called Juliet seemed destined for that particular type of drama, what was it called? Iambic. Yes, Juliets were destined for iambic dramas in the way that Ethels were not.

The Bayswater Road was one of Juliet’s favourite places. The old iron railings provided an enchanted dividing line – the road on one side and Hyde Park on the other, with green tangles of leaves reaching through the railings like fingers and the birdsong swelling out into the city streets. In the days when there was still a George and free afternoons were ordinary things, Juliet liked to bring the children here in their pram to this rectangle of hush within the clatter of London’s streets. Even now Leonard loved the Peter Pan statue concealed in a huddle of ash trees. He liked to pretend he’d forgotten it, for the joy of stumbling across it once again. Men in suits hurried back to offices, dusting sandwich crumbs from pinstriped lapels, and typists in neat wool coats ambled back arm in arm from paper-bag luncheons in the park. The girls were of an age when all money is for spending, friendships are for ever and every girl still believes that she will be the one to marry Cary Grant. No. That was wrong, Juliet realised. That was when she was eighteen. Nowadays the girls dreamed of Elvis Presley and James Dean.

Juliet’s favourite time on the Bayswater Road was Sunday afternoons when the railings were transformed from dividing line into destination and festooned with paintings of every colour, style and skill. She never minded that some of the artists were bad and that the landscapes were usually muddy pastorals under mislit heavens, stars overlarge and moon too blue, or that the nude beauty was in fact ugly. There was always something good to find among the more ordinary pictures and whenever she spotted it, Juliet felt she had uncovered a secret that belonged to her alone.

She hadn’t had a Sunday afternoon on Bayswater Road for years. Not since the unfortunate business with George. Now Sundays invariably seemed to be filled with the debris washed up from the rest of the week: laundry and half-finished spelling tests, dishes abandoned in the sink, mournful as a shipwreck. She was about to indulge in a few moments of rare self-pity (it was her birthday after all) when to her delight she noticed that further along the road a stallholder had started to fasten canvases to the railings. This was an unexpected treat for a humble Wednesday and she hastened along the pavement in happy anticipation. She found a series of watercolours of London streets, dreary renditions for tourists, but she examined them anyway, enjoying the lazy pleasure of recognition. The stall-holder thrust a hurried sketch of the Houses of Parliament into her hands but Juliet had been distracted. Fifty yards away a young man was propping canvases against the base of the railings. She drew closer, stopping before a portrait of a young girl with cropped brown hair and wearing a full primrosecoloured skirt, which caught in the sunlight rushing in through an open casement window. The girl’s legs were tucked up beneath her in a pose of childlike ease as she leaned forward, immersed in the pages of a book. The picture pulsed with light. It looked to Juliet as if the artist had snatched handful after handful of morning sunshine and spread them over the canvas. How had he managed to get them to stay in the picture and not dribble away? She glanced at the pavement, half expecting to see puddles of sunlight lying at her feet.

‘I’m going to call it Privilege at Rest,’ said a voice, and Juliet turned, noticing the painter properly for the first time, taking in his pale indoor skin and the faint whiff of turps. He exuded an air of contrived decadence; a cigarette dangled from his unshaven lips and he sported a pair of faded denim jeans, torn at the knee and artfully smeared with paint.

‘No,’ said Juliet. ‘It’s called A Study in Sunlight.’

She felt him examining her, his eyes narrowing like two little letter boxes, and her cheeks grew warm until she almost regretted speaking. But no, she had been perfectly right. Whatever his intention, this was not a political painting of the kitchen-sink school. The picture had declared itself and taken life beyond the painter’s brush. If he hadn’t realised this, then somebody needed to tell him. Suddenly he smiled; his frown vanished into an even white grin and Juliet realised just how young he was, not more than nineteen or twenty, probably still a student.

‘Yeah, all right. All right,’ he nodded at her, throwing up his hands as if he’d been caught filching apples. ‘Thought I’d try something different. Didn’t really work, did it?’

Juliet smiled back. ‘No. I’m sorry. But it’s a wonderful painting.’

The young man nodded, attempting nonchalance, but the pink tips of his ears betrayed him. Juliet peered at the signature on the canvas.

‘Charlie Fussell? Is that you?’

He held out his hand in answer and Juliet shook it, feeling the calluses and hard skin. A painter’s palm.

‘Juliet Montague.’

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Montague.’ Charlie held onto her fingers for a moment too long and Juliet firmly withdrew, removing her hand to the safety of her handbag strap and suspecting he was laughing at her and her prim middle-class manners.

‘It’s not . . .’ She was about to correct him, to tell this boy that she was Mrs Montague, when she remembered that she wasn’t really – only sort of. And what did it matter anyway and why would he care?

She cleared her throat. ‘How much is the picture, please?’

‘Twenty-one guineas.’

Juliet felt the Bayswater Road dwindle into silence all about her, as though someone had lifted the needle off a gramophone record and it kept on spinning but making no sound. Her mouth was dry and her tongue stuck fatly to the roof of her mouth. Twenty-one guineas. Juliet did not approve of fate. Chance was an untrustworthy thing that led to gambling, and then George pawning her fur coat and the little sapphire earrings she was given for Hanukkah and all manner of unpleasantness and yet, and yet, this painting was hers. It was clearly supposed to be hers. She had tried to be dutiful and sensible and everything she ought to be and she tried to aspire to new refrigerators and live only for her well- mannered, messy-haired children but it was no good. She wanted this painting. This was what a birthday present was supposed to be, not a stupid refrigerator.

‘I’ll take it.’

Juliet’s voice was no louder than a whisper and her hand trembled slightly as she reached into her handbag for her purse. She did not notice Charlie’s eyes widen as she accepted the exorbitant price – having never bought a picture before, she did not know that she was supposed to negotiate.

‘Will you wrap it, please?’

‘I’m not selling,’ said Charlie.

A trickle of anger ran down Juliet’s spine like perspiration.

‘If you want more money, you’re sadly out of luck. This is all I have and I was supposed to use it to buy a fridge.’

Charlie laughed. ‘A fridge? You think art is interchangeable with household goods? Now I’m certainly not selling it to you.’

Juliet sucked her lip and frowned. She decided that this was some sort of game she didn’t fully understand.

‘You don’t want this pictu...

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