At first glance, The Very Picture of You, by Isabel Wolff, is the story of an artist's way of life. In reality, however, it's so much more. Ella Graham, a talented portrait artist, has quite a few commissions to finish. Each sitting to Ella is like a therapy session. In the course of conversation, her subjects slowly reveal themselves to her until who they truly are is what she portrays them to be. But there's more to this story than meets the eye, or canvas, as it were. The secondary characters in this novel, while at first seemingly unrelated, are in fact, woven together to present a common and recurrent element. Mike, a local politician, Iris, a pleasant elderly woman, Celine, a dissatisfied housewife, Grace, the one posthumous commission Ella takes on, Chloe, Ella's half sister, Sue, her mother, Roy, her step-father and lastly, Nate, Chloe's intended, are wrapped around the central themes of marriage, infidelity, abandonment and forgiveness. And it's written in such a way that you are seeing and feeling everything Ella does until you too, have a complete picture of each character, without ever actually seeing their portrait. It's probably about as fine an example of descriptive writing I have come across in a very long time.
Overarching these stories is Ella, herself a two-time victim of clandestine loves that if revealed, would destroy the relationships her family has worked so hard to build over the years. She's also presented with a life changing decision, a road that if taken could destroy her mother yet turn the page on an old hurt that has colored every part of her life since the age of 5. Will she reach out and grab the opportunities presented to her? Or will she decide that the rewards to be gained from love are not worth the price she will have to pay?
Ella is far from perfect, even though she is an extraordinary artist. She makes a few wild (and it turns out wrong) assumptions along the way. I was surprised actually, at her gullibility in certain situations and her tendency to believe the worst in people without giving them the benefit of the doubt. I soon realized, however, that this trait was important because it revealed a distinct inability to see the two sides that might exist to a story. This turns out to be a crucial factor in her relationship with her mother, the most important relationship Ella has in this novel until the very end of the book, when the seemingly impossible resolutions to her dilemmas (happily for her) become reality.
Utilizing wonderful secondary characters, each with their own story to tell, including a family that, while not dysfunctional could certainly use some lessons in honesty and communication, Isabel Wolff has written a worthy follow-up to A Vintage Affair, also reviewed here at Bookishly Attentive. On sale in hardcover on October 4, The Very Picture of You is a must-read for anyone looking for a moving family story that paints a beautifully vivid picture with words.