In 1942 the National Gallery in London launched its ‘Picture of the Month’ scheme. Each month one of the masterpieces that had been hidden away to protect them from bombing raids during the war would be brought out of storage and put on display. Daisy Milton, who is working in London as a typist, decides to go along every month to look at the paintings in the hope that it will give her something to look forward to and help her get through the days until the war is over. After each visit to the gallery she writes a letter to her friend Elizabeth in Canada, describing the painting and how it made her feel.
In the present day we meet Claire and her husband, Rob. When Rob’s grandmother, Elizabeth, dies she leaves him a box containing the letters she received from Daisy throughout the war. A recent tragedy has almost destroyed Claire and Rob’s marriage and Claire finds some comfort in reading Daisy’s letters and going to look at the paintings once a month just as Daisy did. As the months go by and Claire finds herself drawn into Daisy’s world she starts to see some parallels between Daisy’s life in the past and her own life in the present.
I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, but although I was interested in both the wartime and modern day storylines I did prefer the wartime one because I found Daisy a much more appealing character than Claire. For a long time Claire annoyed me because she seemed so self-absorbed and unwilling to move on with her life. I had more sympathy for Rob, who came across as a kind, considerate husband who was doing his best to make their marriage work and starting to run out of patience. As Claire’s story unfolded I started to warm to her a bit more, but I would still rather have spent more time with Daisy.
My favourite thing about this novel was having the opportunity to learn about the paintings that were displayed in the National Gallery during the war. Each chapter of the book begins with a QR code that you can scan with your phone (if you have the right sort of phone) and it will take you directly to the painting, or you can look them up online yourself later if you prefer – they are all easy to find on the National Gallery website. Some were very famous paintings that I was already familiar with, such as The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and The Hay Wain by John Constable, but there were others I knew nothing about. It was a fascinating experience to view each of these paintings first through Daisy’s eyes and Claire’s, then to be able to look at them myself and see things in them that I might not have thought of otherwise.
Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book.