The Center of the World
By Thomas Van Essen
The Other Press, 2013
Four interlocking stories chronicle the fate of a fictional J. M. W. Turner painting called The Center of the World. Charles Grant is a handsome British writer/scholar who gets swept up in the lavish world of Mrs. Spencer and Lord Egremont, one of Turner’s patrons, and meets Turner around the time he painted The Center of the World. Cornelius Rhinebeck, an American industrialist, savors the Turner painting in his upstate New York country home in the 1920s. Gina, an ambitious young woman, who works for a New York-based fine arts consultancy in the late naughts, goes on a search to find the painting. And Henry Leiden, an unassuming middle-aged New Jersey man, has his life turned around by The Center of the World.
I deeply enjoyed this book. It explores the themes of art, sexuality, beauty, marriage and servitude/patronage. It is told in multiple voices and while it took me a little while to settle into, and find myself, in all the stories, once I did, I was completely drawn in. Van Essen also interweaves e-mails, letters, an obituary, a 19th-century memoir and a transcript into the story. I am not a big reader of historical fiction, but I found the 19th century scenes, mainly set in Lord Egremont’s Petworth House, to be vivid and engaging while enjoying how the story was also grounded in the present.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.