No Portrait in the Gilded Frame by Tudor Alexander
Genre: Literary fiction, Self-discovery
Book Description (from Goodreads): An intelligent and captivating story about the emotional journeys we undertake and the corners of the heart we end up calling home, No Portrait in the Gilded Frame takes readers from Romania behind the Iron Curtain to the cosmopolitan cities of Israel and the lavish lifestyles of wealthy Southern California.
Centered around the life of Miriam Sommer, a gifted Jewish painter, the story opens in 1950s Romania and follows her as she experiences her first love, her first encounters with anti-Semitism, and her first betrayal at the hands of a lover.
Escaping heartbreak and searching for inspiration in new places, Miriam travels to Israel, where she meets immigrants and Israelis alike, learns to fend for herself, and starts new and complex relationships.
Her path from the wild girl in a backwater Romanian town to becoming a strong and willful woman fighting for her rights, spans decades and continents. With rich detail and finely crafted characters, No Portrait in the Gilded Frame is a story of emotional depth and beauty that will delight fans of literary fiction.
Book Review: This book wasn’t exactly what I expected. Based on the description, I thought we’d see Miriam Sommer find her feet, find herself, and carve her own place out in the world a lot earlier than we did (if such a thing truly takes place in the novel at all…I’ll leave that for other readers to decide for certain). Instead of being a multi-national coming-of-age story, the novel was a detailed (though not erotic in tone) look at her many affairs with older men, most of whom were rich and capable–and not necessarily looking to settle down. So here’s a closer look at the Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, World-building, and my Overall Response.
Narration: 4 out of 5. I felt that the narration was truly one of the best parts of the book. We didn’t get a great deal of smells and tastes, but the mood and feel of the various places was well-presented, to where I was never at a loss as to where we were in the world. Romania didn’t feel like Israel, and even the different cities within a country felt unique.
The writing was first person from Miriam’s point-of-view, but even when she was young, she was capable of observing and noting others, to a degree, so I didn’t feel stifled (but I did wonder if her own character skewed the others, making them all come off a bit absorbed and self-centered, as explored below).
Content: 4 out of 5. I was a bit surprised by the adult content, as there was some confusion between the author and I about what PG-13 means in a book. This is definitely an adult read, as Miriam and her partners share a fair bit of intimacy that happens in the book. The actual sexual act isn’t necessarily described, but there are descriptions of them, afterwards (or before) as they share conversation and discuss their goals, lives, and feelings.
Characters: 3 out of 5. I’m not sure if the characters and I just lacked chemistry, or if they were one-dimensional, but almost all of them came across as mildly conniving or unengaged. This could be Miriam’s fault, as everything is from her point-of-view, but she actually seemed less self-serving than those around her. She struck me as lonely, needy, and eager to be loved, which made sense since her father left her and her siblings when he abandoned and divorced her mother.
And there were some characters who I liked, like her brother and a housekeeper, but I never felt like we got close enough to them to really care about them. They were left on the outside while everything tended to focus on Miriam and her emotional and physical state, which felt to me to be still undeveloped towards the end (making me think the title was a reference to her and how she looked perfect on the outside but hadn’t got a great deal of personality and intrinsic characteristics. At best, she is like her art, a work-in-progress; at worst, she’s an abandoned project overpowered by her “frame”).
Artwork: Subjective. I liked the cover, with the artwork set down (or whatever that thing with all the squiggles is), the brushes set aside, the wall blank. It reflected Miriam’s life, how everything was made ready but nothing was ever hung on the wall, as I saw it (but as it is literary fiction, the characters and nature of the story is very much left up to the reader to interpret).
World-Building: 4 out of 5. There wasn’t a great deal of world-building, as it came across a variation of our world (if not our world itself). Since Miriam tended to live a reclusive life, the narration followed suit, and even when Miriam went places or did things, it felt like she never came out of herself.
Despite this, though, I found it interesting to glimpse what life could’ve been like behind the “Iron Curtain,” as the author lived in Romania before moving to the United States. The daily challenges, the attempts to fit in, to be less Jewish, and the frustrations of the Romanian people on the way their country was run and how they couldn’t escape it all came through, which was more interesting to me, in many ways, than Miriam and her problems (which could just mean she wasn’t the sort of character who I’d have a great deal of sympathy for).
Overall Response: 15 out of 20, for a total of 3.75. There really wasn’t anything I could point to that I didn’t like, in and of itself (besides the content when it skipped over the PG-13 line). Yet I didn’t enjoy this novel that much, and I think most of it stemmed from the main character. She was well-written, and I felt like I truly got to know her, but I never truly cared (save for after a traumatic event happened, when she snapped and fell to pieces, and by that point, it was a too little, too late). Overall, she just seemed the type of woman who needed things done for her and could never truly stand on her own feet. It was too hard, too difficult; too much work without enough reward, which made me want to tell her to “just grow up.”
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo used by permission from the author