Book review: “The Painter’s Daughters” by Anna-Karin Palm

“The Painter’s Daughter’s” dates from 1997. It was its cover I remembered: a painting of two young girls. This cover and the novel’s story tie in nicely with the Gainsborough exhibition I recently visited.

The subject of this romantic or psychological novel, are children from different generations. The sets of children share painters as fathers. Another tie is Gainsborough and the portraits his daughters Margaret and Mary.

Gainsborough daughters 1The book’s cover shows a different Gainsborough than the one on show at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe. However, the girls are more or less the same age. In the story, yet another Gainsborough painting of his daughters plays a role. It is the one of Mary and Margaret chasing a butterfly.

The first chapter introduces Martin and Maria. Siblings, they are embarking upon a quest to find their father in England. Their sister Jessica has refused to join this quest and remains in Sweden.

Their father left them and their mother decades ago, which left deep scars. But out of the blue, a letter from Cindy Brown reached them. Cindy inherited the house of her aunt in Uffington. In the house, Cindy found a painting and on its back an address in Sweden.

Once in Uffington, bit about their father’s life after he left his family is revealed to Martin and Maria. Soon they are on their way to the next place he lived in. Travelling from one place to the next, they discover their father’s life, their own secrets, family relations.

The novel also tells Laura’s story. She and her sister Eveline live in rural England around 1900. Their father is also a painter. Family events and relationships have a deep impact on Laura. Early on, she becomes fascinated by Gainsborough and later visits Gainsborough house in Sudbury with her father.

After his death, Laura spends time with her uncle in London. She visits the National Gallery to see Gainsborough’s paintings. She also meets lecturer Ian Anderton and a Slade student called Tilda. She and Tilda decide to share a house and Laura becomes part of a group of artists. Later she has an affair with , who helps her getting her Gainsborough book published.

Laura breaks off her affair with Anderton when she falls pregnant. Her son becomes a painter. When he finds out his father is Ian Anderton the art critic, he packs his bags and leaves his mother.

Laura’s son will spend time in Sweden and England. He has many relationships and will have several children. In the end, the various threads in the book will be tied neatly together, when Martin and Maria meet Miranda.

Gainsborough daughters 2This novel is romantic in that it deals with various love and love relationships. It is psychological because it goes into family relationships and traumas. It also concerns talent and talented people and how talent influences people and relationships. People driven by their talents and focussed on their art, are not necessarily the best of partners or parents.

The point of view changes between Martin, Maria and Laura. The quest takes Martin and Maria from Uppsala and Göteborg to England. First to the village of Uffington and its mysterious white horse. Then there are visits to for instance St Ives and Lyme Regis. All places are related to phases in the various lives of the characters.

As this novel deals with art and painting, the sense of seeing is important. Not just in details the characters notice, but also in bringing scenery and places alive. Minute details like the taste or smell of a plant as well as other sense ensure this novel has plenty sensual scenes. It is as if Anna-Karin Palm paints a beautiful landscape made up of parts of England which inspired and influenced several painters on a very large canvas.

The story is of course carefully constructed. Its pace varies, but is never too slow. In short: it comes as no surprise, the book was an international bestseller. But as it was first published in 1997 and translations started to appear about a year later, there may be a problem finding a copy to read.

“Mälarens döttar”, Anna-Karin Palm, published in Sweden in 1997. Published in many translations. English title “The Painter’s Daughters”.

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