Evie Slade has long ago put her unhappy Indiana childhood behind her and created a quiet, solitary life for herself in New York City. Talented and introspective, as a conservator specializing in the art of seventeenth-century Holland, she has devoted herself to restoring to perfection worlds created in paint.
Now middle-aged and vaguely discontented with her life, Evie gladly accepts a commission to repair a slashed Vermeer at the National Gallery in London. She anticipated being energized by the change of scene and returning to her old life renewed; instead, an affair with archaeologist Cliff Mills and the unexpected arrival of her troubled niece Jenny shatter her serene pursuit of the work she loves.
But most of all it is England—England, where her father and stepmother met and fell in love during World War II, where every field speaks of a time dating back to the Romans and beyond—that sends her reeling backwards, to confront and resolve the troubling elements of her past.
The action of the novel unfolds itself beneath the gaze of Vermeer's "A Lady Standing at the Virginal," whose ever-growing presence in Evie's life heightens her own sense of discovery about herself, her family, and her deepening relationship with Cliff.
In the month that I had known him, Cliff had begun to make me consider that what he believed: you must know your past to know yourself. You must suffer the exhaustion, the filth, the tedium. You must be patient. Brave. You must learn to cherish what you find, even if it’s not what you hoped for, even if it renders meaningless all you found before. But I resisted it. I didn’t want it to be true. When I left home at eighteen, I believed my real life was beginning. Now I was in the prime of that life I’d made. Come autumn, I’d be forty-five. Why look back to a time that had brought me so much unhappiness?
Cliff zipped up the pack and hoisted it on his shoulder. As if he’d read my thoughts, he stood and looked beyond our solid, touchable wall to where it curved out of sight, a long chalky line meandering through the luxuriant English summer. Where the Roman town had flourished, now wheat and barley grew. Cows and goats grazed above the buried streets.
“It’s as if it never was,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. Again, I waited.
“Buried gone—” He smiled at me. “We English are so sensible, you know. We’ve worked the site. Museums hold what we’ve found here, safe, and now the rich farmland is put back into proper use. But in the autumn the town reasserts itself. Evie, if you could see it from the air!
“The wheat and barley can’t root so deeply where the gravel streets were, or above the remains of the flint walls. As the season changes and the plants receive less moisture, those above the streets and walls grow poorly. They’re shorter than the others, unhealthy. Ripening, they reach maturity and turn yellow sooner than the other plants. From the air, you can see the grid of Roman streets in them—yellow lines on a green field. In a very dry season, you can even see the narrower lines of walls and houses.”
I understood what he was saying to me, why he had brought me here. And I was afraid.
© Barbara Shoup 2012