cover image THE PORTRAIT


Iain M. Pears, . . Riverhead, $19.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-57322-298-3

Justly praised for his complex historical thrillers (An Instance of the Fingerpost ; The Dream of Scipio ), Pears scales down to a simple tale of vengeance told by a narrator obsessed with destroying the man he once called his friend and mentor. Henry MacAlpine has abandoned his comfortable life as a celebrated portraitist in early 1900s London and fled to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany. To that lonely spot he lures William Naysmith, the British art world's most famous critic, with the promise of painting his portrait. In the course of the narrative, MacAlpine recalls the development of his artistic talent with the advice and praise of the ambitious Naysmith. The suspense lies in the gradual revelation of Naysmith's ruthless use of power, yet the double crime for which MacAlpine holds him accountable comes as little surprise. While this novel never approaches the sly cleverness and tingling suspense of John Lanchester's A Debt to Pleasure , which it otherwise resembles, readers will enjoy some period ironies, as when MacAlpine expresses contempt for the upstart French Impressionists, while the contemptible Naysmith discerns their true genius. Anybody in the business of criticism, whether it be artistic or literary, will be chastened by Pears's indictment of a critic's power to make or ruin reputations. Agent, Felicity Bryan. (Apr. 21)

Forecast: The relative lack of plot may disappoint Pears's readership, but the subject matter will likely make the book popular fodder for reviewers.