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Pictures at an Exhibition

3.39  ·  Rating details ·  1,366 ratings  ·  255 reviews
Set in a Paris darkened by World War II, Sara Houghteling’s sweeping and sensuous debut novel tells the story of a son’s quest to recover his family’s lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.

Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends me
Hardcover, 243 pages
Published February 17th 2009 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2009)
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 ·  1,366 ratings  ·  255 reviews

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Feb 20, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: world-war-2, 2009
I was thinking that one of the tell tale signs of a mediocre book review is "I really wanted to like this book..." And I really did. I enjoyed the setting of the Paris art scene in the pre world war two era. This was what drew me to the book in the first place. But the setting and the books potential were undermined by the vapidness of the main character - the son of a Jewish art dealer. The first half of the book (pre-war)he is floundering in his father's shadow and wallowing in a strange gener ...more
Jul 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Wow, if only all novels were this good. Intelligent, informative, compulsively readable, moving without being painfully so. I highly recommend this book. I was glad that I had just finished reading Thomas Hoving's Master Pieces, and so had some idea what the paintings described in the book look like; it's not essential but if you don't know much about art it's not a bad idea to have a Survey of Great Western Art type book available. Or i guess you can look the pictures up on the internet. A real ...more
Aug 01, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: france-paris
In 1944-45 Paris, Max, the son of a prominent art dealer, tracks down the confiscated contents of his father's gallery. The key to the mystery is Rose Clement, who'd apprenticed with his father before the war and worked during the war at the Jeu de Paume.

Likes: the embedded history lessons. Between liberation and the end of the war, Paris was more chaotic than I'd realized. Hard to picture battles around the Grand Palais or in the Luxemburg Gardens.

Dislikes: The writing was awkward, heavy. Max'
Aug 02, 2009 rated it it was ok
Sometimes I pick up a book by an author I've never heard of, whose book is reviewed by other authors I've never heard of or know I don't like, just because the plot idea for the book is so intriguing.

Note to self: stop doing this. You'll only spend the entire time you're reading the book wishing a better writer had thought of the plot idea.

There was a lot of confusing, convoluted writing in this book, and it was as if the author was having a hard time wrestling the book into submission. It see
Mar 28, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned-books
This book had so much promise, but I just couldn't finish it. The note at the end of the book about the sources she used for her story was actually quite interesting. It is unfortunate that the story just didn't work. The story is supposed to be a mystery - a family loses their paintings during WWII and the son is on a quest to locate the paintings, and a woman that he fell in love with before he left Paris. The woman was a curator at the Louvre during WWII (the true part of the story that was i ...more
Jun 06, 2009 rated it liked it
I really wanted to like this book much more than I did. The subject matter and even some of the writing is incredible, but it seemed so flat @ times and also uneven. As if she wrote it in different moods, or else without a cohesive outline, or something. The ideas behind it and how she chose to present the story were very interesting, but it needed more guidance, more depth, more story, more something.
I am almost tempted to reread it at a later date to see if my disappointment once forgotten is
Apr 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, lit-fiction
Excellent debut novel about the art world in Paris before WW2 and the story of all the art looted by the Nazis, much of which was never recovered. Extremely well written, especially for a first novel.
Jul 13, 2009 added it
What is the loss of art, compared to the murder of millions of human beings? Perhaps little. Yet art is part of what makes us human, and the destruction and theft of art because of its associations with people of a particular ethnicity is soul murder.

During World War II, the Germans looted the great museums and the great private collections of Europe. Much of this loot has never been recovered, and, even where it has, much of it has not or cannot be restituted, because of lack of records, resist
Jul 09, 2012 rated it liked it
My reading of this book happened to coincide with publication of a new study, "Savage Continent," by Keith Lowe, about the violence that persisted in Europe after WWII. Like most Americans, I always thought of VE Day as the happy ending to WWII. In fact, for many survivors it was a nightmare. They were not welcomed back with open arms, and many of their French neighbors were not eager to restore the looted homes, businesses, and possessions. According to Lowe, anti-semitism actually increased in ...more
What happened during the Second World War to all the art owned by Jewish people in France? MS Houghteling takes a Parisian art dealer as an example, describes what he has on his walls and which artists he handles and then shows the ways in which cultural objects were made to disappear. Many of them were intended for Hitler's projected museum, but some went to collections of Nazi leaders and not a few were lifted by "Americans". I put quote marks because I am sure the people flogging art after li ...more
May 20, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2009
A good read, though ended just when it could have really begun to go somewhere. The info about the real woman that the story is based on sounded fascinating, and I wished that the book had many more chapters about her involvement in the art dealings with the Nazis and with the French after the war.

The main character was not as interesting as her (he's smart but so oblivious about people around him that he is frustrating), so I understand why the book ended when it did, but I think we lost a grea
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
2.5 rounded down. I think the history and art section of the book were great. There's even some photos of artwork that went missing during WWII.

But the story part...well, perhaps I have WWII burnout in fiction. Each book I read reveals worse and worse events. For the main reveal here of the big secret--huh? That's it? ((view spoiler)
Narrator has a good French accent. Not sure what I think about the book. Subject is very interesting so far. WWII, stolen art.

There were many things I liked about this book. Houghteling did a great job of selling the setting to me. I could smell the Gauloise cigsand the Parisian quai, and the French countryside.

Ultimately, despite the fascinating subject matter, I decided the characters I wanted to know the most about were only seen through the narrator, Max. I wanted to know more about Rose, t
Mar 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
For awhile, I was reading quite a number of books about art theft, art fraud, and art stolen during the Holocaust (including Noah Charney's The Art Thief, and Edward Dolnick's books The Forger's Spell and The Rescue Artist). So, I was a little reluctant to pick this one up, thinking it would just be more of the same. Luckily, I decided to read it anyway. Pictures at an Exhibition takes place in Paris, and chronicles a young man's quest to recover his father's paintings which were looted by the N ...more
switterbug (Betsey)
Feb 27, 2011 rated it liked it
I really wanted to love this book, to appreciate its classiness and dignity and deep appreciation of art. However, the problem is that with all its splendor of music and art, it is too expository. I am very visual when I read, and I depend on the narrative to float me along, to raise strong vivid images. It failed to do that. The cadence is choppy and before I can attempt to grasp a scene or a character, it has skittered past me. Its very lightness was ponderous.

This is a first novel for Hought
Bookmarks Magazine
Apr 15, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: may-june-2009

In this historical novel, Houghteling explores Fascism and humanism, unrequited love, and plundered art; it's a historical fact that most of the paintings Max searches for never resurfaced. Critics couldn't help but note that Pictures contains the promises and pitfalls of a first novel. Houghteling evokes 1930s and 1940s Paris, the one-of-a-kind paintings, and the chilling complicity of art dealers in crisp, descriptive language. However, reviewers diverged on a number of points. To some, Rose -

Mar 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
When I realized that this story of a Jewish art dealer's family would be taking me into the days of World War 2 occupation I almost put it aside. I just felt like I could not handle concentration camps and death and loss and heartbreak. It's hard enough to face it in nonfiction, I was not up to letting it take center stage in my escapist fiction literature too. But, true to my vow to myself that every book deserves at least 80 pages before I give up on it, I persevered. I was very glad that I di ...more
Liane Wakabayashi
Feb 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I've just returned from Paris and oh what a trip Sara Houghteling has prepared for us. I'm a lover of European art, Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in general, Manet, Picasso, Matisse in particular, and I have never read a book quite like this--a historical re-enactment of the lives of France's great Jewish art dealers before and during World War II. There's much to celebrate, much to mourn over. Sara Houghteling leaves it up to us to figure out whether art collecting is a high stakes g ...more
Apr 03, 2009 rated it it was ok
While I did enjoy Ms. Houghteling's prose, the plot has several large gaps. I felt she glazed over the French Jewish people's experiences during and after German-occupied Paris during World war II to focus soley on how the Nazis raided Paris' art collections, both public and private, and the problems that arose trying to restore those stolen art works.

Certainly poignant, I still wanted more information and interaction between the central characters the author created. She sets up these character
Oct 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
I could not put this book down. I have read some of the books that appear in the bibliography, and that may have helped, but the story was fascinating and functioned on many levels: a father-son story, a putative romance, the collaboration of the Vichy government with Nazis, the systematic looting of private art collections during the second world war, the pain of families and friend disappeared (and ultimately dead) during the war, and the goodness and clear morals that guide some people even i ...more
Nov 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: did-not-finish
I got 3/4s of the way through and just couldn't push to the finish. This is a perfect example of why I prefer non-fiction about such topics. The Journal of Helene Berr, or Nine Suitcases, were readable and real, this book was not. The story of the woman that Rose was based on would have been a vast improvement.

For me, a strangely disjointed narrative of a dullness unsurpassed. I thought I could finish it but, after setting it down for a week, it was even less palatable.

I didn't hate this so not
Mar 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
great first novel. sure there's lots of holes in plot and some weirdness on the characters, but very well portrays horror of wars, looting, lost cultural treasures, lost lives, beauty and power of art. plus its based on wwii facts and personalities. of the 100,000 looted art and books from france in wwii, 40,000 are unclaimed or lost (forever?) and that's what this story is about, things lost and unclaimable.
now we have our own looted and lost art and books for our usa conscious. what REALLY is
Mar 19, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
This debut novel was a wonderfully written story about love and art and loss that somehow failed to make an emotional connection. Though I was pulled into the narrative, I found myself caring more about the art than the personal lives of the characters. Perhaps the author was trying to convey the coldness of war, but I found myself feeling isolated from the characters. There was great potential in this novel, and the writing was exquisite, but in the end I just wasn't invested enough in it to co ...more
Apr 15, 2009 rated it it was ok
Beautifully written for a first novel. Unfortunately, the story never hooked me and I really had to work my way through it. The book is well researched and as previous reviewers have noted, Houghteling clearly has a passion for both art and Paris as well as the talent to express it. A fascinating subject and a wonderful setting are slowed by efforts to keep the reader engaged with the characters. The Author's Note was especially interesting and pointed to other great resources on the subject.

Nov 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
Well done for a first novel, but as many other reviewers noted, the story idea was better than the execution. It had parts that were great, but then sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to be deep and introspective. The plot seemed to peter off at the end-- I thought I was in the middle of the story, and suddenly, I heard "Epilogue." What happened to the rest of the story? Perhaps the author was going for a post-modern ambiguous ending, but then why the long, drawn-out epilogue? ...more
Jun 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written. A difficult era to write about, but Ms. Houghteling brought the Paris art world before and after WWII to life. Just an excellent book.
Nikki Reed
Sep 10, 2012 rated it did not like it
I didn't get very far in reading this book. It was very tedious and cliche. ...more
Roberta Westwood
Apr 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: listened
The art world post WWII
I really enjoyed this book, and my only complaint was that it wasn't longer. Set in Paris on the heels of World War II, the story provides unique insights on what the city was like at the time when concentration camp horrors were just coming to light, and those who had gone underground for years were reemerging. Who had survived and who hadn't was still unknown. Owners were returning to the homes they fled only to find them occupied, abandoned after serving as Nazi facilit
Adam Rosenbaum
Mar 12, 2017 rated it liked it
Another reason why I've chosen to not join book clubs. This was a selection that I never would have picked. A Jewish son of a leading art gallery owner in Paris tries to track down his father's paintings (Manets,' Picasso's, Braque's, etc) that were looted by the Germans. He also pursues his elusive and mysterious paramour Rose. It just wasn't compelling, not the love story, the art gallery or anything. And how does anybody write about this time period while skipping over the impact of WWll? The ...more
Jill Meyer
Apr 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I reviewed this for Amazon's new Vine program and I must say that I enjoyed both the writing and the character development more than most of the other reviewers seem to have.

As both an art lover and a history-jock with a special interest in Jewish subjects and World War 2, I thought Houghteling told her story of French art dealers both before and after the war very well. But, this was a story of a family of art dealers as much as a story of the art they were selling. And the family, as most fami
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Sara Houghteling graduated from Harvard College in 1999 and received her master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, first prize in the Avery and Jules Hopwood Awards, and a John Steinbeck Fellowship. She currently lives in California, where she teaches high school English. Pictures at an Exhibition is her first novel.

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