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June Book Club - The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

(169 Posts)
KatGransnet (GNHQ) Wed 04-Jun-14 12:22:36

This month's book pick is The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons, the captivating story of the life and loves of a woman who breaks free of her strict Jewish upbringing and joins the world of art and artists in sixties London.

If you received one of our free copies don't forget to leave your comments and questions below for the author. We'll be sending questions off to Natasha at the end of June.

Also - if you have a spare couple of minutes - do take the time to post your review of the book in our Reviews section:

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:13:02


I loved this book and the insight it gave into Jewish customs. I found Juliet a very well-drawn character who was struggling to please her parents (didn't we all!) and yet live a more modern and free life. I felt very sorry for her.

My question for Natasha is whether she thinks the belief regarding divorce and chained women (aguna) will persist. Is it prevalent? Do the youth of today accept it?

It remains a problem within the Orthodox community. The new Chief Rabbi in France was elected partly as he promised to address the issue. It’s less of a problem outside the more conservative communities, but men sometimes still use the threat of withholding a ‘get’ (the Jewish divorce paper) to negotiate a better settlement.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:14:45


Thank you for my copy - final few chapters of current book to finish and then will begin to read. Does the author have experience of being closeted by a community, I wonder, to be able to write about it?

No – my family is not religious at all. I have some conservative friends and I read a great deal. For me the pleasure of being a writer is imagining a life and lives different from my own.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:15:21


I would really like to know Natasha Solomons' publishing journey. I have been writing childrens' stories which I am self publishing under a pen name, but I am in the process of researching an adult book staggering three generations and would like to try to find a conventional publisher etc.
Maybe too many people have questions like that, but it would be nice to know how someone successful did it.

I first found an agent by writing to several with a query letter and sample chapter. Once I found my agent we worked on the book together for a while – he corrected lots of my wonky spellings and sent the book to publishers. I was lucky and my first book (Mr Rosenblum’s List) sold at auction.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:16:50


I really enjoyed this book, and the character of Juliet. When I had finished it, I wondered about the title? I see that your other novels have been given different titles in the USA. I felt the emphasis of the book was less on the vanished husbands and more on Juliet's collections in her gallery and her own collection of herself. I thought the idea of a woman, an outsider, looking for herself in how others saw her, quite striking and original.

Yes, I think you’re right. As an aguna, Juliet feels invisible and not quite respectable. For years after George leaves she tries to do everything that’s expected of her, but she feels like no one really sees her. She’s a warning to other young women, a cipher, but she’s really lost her personal identity. She wants to be seen again. Charlie sees her. He knows nothing about her story or her struggles but as he paints her, he sees her. For the first time in years, she’s no longer invisible and that relief is dizzying. That portrait has consequences and alters the drab course of Juliet’s life.

I think the act of being painted is also a little bit addictive – and Juliet is always curious about how other people see her.

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands was a real column running several times a week until the 1970s in the Yiddish newspaper ‘The Jewish Daily Forward’. It was a rogue’s gallery with photos of the absconded husbands and a description of the plight of the women left behind and their abandoned children. Most of the pleas are for the husbands to return and take care of them. There are snippets about where the husband was last seen, or some detail about him: ‘Wiseman is a chorus man, has sung in the Hippodrome in New York’ or ‘Mr Bergsitz is a sweater knitter and a cigar maker by trade’. These tiny, abbreviated captions suggest huge human stories behind them, and I wanted to work backwards, to imagine the family behind the advertisement and fill in the spaces between those few lines of copy.

Titles are tricky. I have to listen to publishers in other territories when they tell me that they don’t think the UK title will work for their readers. Sometimes the UK title occurs to me along with the idea but other times it only comes when the novel is basically finished. I find that a bit unnerving. A title is like a picture frame – it can really define and set off a book to its best advantage. I feel a little naked writing without one…

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:18:35


Many thanks for my copy of 'The Gallery of Vanished Husbands' which I received this week. Currently in middle of reading 'Deep Blue Sea' Tasmina Perry. Really looking forward to reading 'The Gallery of Vanished Husbands'. I lt looks like a really interesting read and I love the cover. I have not read either of Natasha's other books, I do not know where she finds time to write with a baby and phd work and all!

With difficulty! The PhD has fallen by the wayside for now. Mostly I’m glad if I have time to brush my hair. With a toddler, I have very little time to procrastinate any more. Even procrastination has to be scheduled. I did manage to make my son’s birthday cake last year and it wasn’t awful, which came as a tremendous surprise to us all.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:20:05


Great book, thank you!
Natasha has really got to the core of attitudes in the 60s - not just Jewish. I remember "what will people think" being the first thing in some peoples minds. Mrs Greene is so like so many women of the time.
One small thing that has stuck in my mind - the perm that Juliet had when she was trying to look part of the 60s scene - I had one of those and it was ghastly - I had to face the laughs and looks at school with mine.And, yes, a fierce haircut was the only answer!
My only question for Natasha - how did you manage to research the details so accurately - you have captured the mindset of the characters so well, yet you are too young to have lived through the 60s to have seen it first hand.

I read a great deal and I also listen to people – my parents, their friends and my parents-in-law. I find real people have a different impression of the times they grew up in than history books or documentaries. It’s the small stories and details that are often the most touching and insightful.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:21:29


I would like to ask Natasha if her own Mother helped her with the book; attitudes, conversation, fashion etc.Also if David Hockney really DID say that sentence about only selling his work for £100 ?

Yes, the David Hockney stuff is accurate – and at the time £100 was a huge sum for a student. He really did decline being included in the Ruth Borchard collection – he wanted more than 21 guineas for a self-portrait. And, my mother only reads the book once it’s finished, but I do listen to her stories of growing up in the 60s.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:22:20


What a great read! I particularly enjoyed the relationships between Juliet and her parents and her relationship with Leonard and Freida. The descriptions of Freida's rights of passage into adulthood was touchingly funny. The description of Toms suicide and the emotional turmoil that ensued was beautifully depicted. So many events that would have come into conflict with many faiths not just Judaism were woven through the story. Being gay, suicide, sex before marriage to mentions a few reminding me of how challenging the sixties were. There was also an awareness of those who had not survived the camps running like a thread throughout the book anchoring those who had survived more firmly in their faith.

I would like to ask Natasha if her research showed if many women were influenced by the 60's liberalism and rejected their Jewish faith and moved towards secularism?

I’m not sure I could generalise about the number of people moving away from religion towards secularism. Britain today is certainly an increasingly secular society. However, as a secular Jew I’m still aware of my cultural heritage. My grandparents were refugees from Germany and after the war they rejected all religion. God doesn’t feature in our lives but stories do and the Jewish story is one of the most compelling of all.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:23:19


I so enjoyed this book- I read it in just a couple of days, thanks to footy on TV!
I really loved the descriptions of the paintings- so vivid I could see them & also the mood of the 60s was well described. I would have been Freida's age so I can remember the fear of not getting it quite right all the time - but being a bit scared what would happen if I did. I remember so well how important is was to be cool, wear the right clothes & makeup when sometimes I still wanted to be a child. I expect it is the same for all young teenagers even now.

I will look for Natasha's other books now- I think they would go down well with my reading group.

I'd like to ask if Natasha paints at all herself?- If not she obviously has a very good eye & I think maybe she should!

A lovely book- thank you

I’m a terrible artist! A stick-man is about my limit. I love painting with words, though…

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:24:57


Thank you for my copy of The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. I would like to ask the author where she gets the ideas for her stories from- particularly this one and The Novel of the Viola which I already had. Why and how did she first start writing and has she any tips for a buddy author struggling to write a first book.

I was fascinated by the plight of the ‘aguna’. In Jewish law only men can divorce women, never the other way around. The man has to place in his wife’s hands a declaration of divorce known as a ‘get’ in the presence of a Rabbi. Without this piece of paper a woman is still married under Jewish law, even if she has divorced her husband in the civil courts.

These women, still technically married, but living in a kind of limbo are known as ‘aguna’ or ‘chained women’. They’re viewed as sort of widows, but widows who are unable to remarry or form any kind of relationship with another man. There is a huge stigma attached to being an aguna or the child of an aguna.

I was intrigued by the plight of these women. It seems to me to be a piece of medievalism impinging on the modern world, and I wanted to write about a character who struggles against the inequity of it, while on the other hand retaining great affection for the community in which she was raised.

We hear so much about the ‘swinging ‘60s’ but the truth is they weren’t swinging for everyone. In the small towns and the suburbs, life continued much as before with the same curtain-twitching morality. But Juliet can’t bear it any longer and wants something more.

In terms of writing advice: I think the trick is to try and enjoy it. Writing can be a great pleasure – you don’t need to be published, writing for its own sake is enough. Indulge your imagination and see where it takes you. If a novel seems too daunting, then try with a short story or two. If at the end you have more to say and the characters need more time, then think about turning it into a novel. When you get stuck, do some weeding or go for a walk. Or eat cake. Cake always helps.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:25:50


I've loved this book and am so glad I got a chance to read it. I really enjoyed the characterisation and felt that the attention to detail made the characters live for me. I loved the way the various strands and themes of the story were woven together portraying the journey through time. The use of a painting to capture each time capsule was enthralling. As a painter I really enjoyed the 'painterly' action and the authentic feel of those sections. The struggle between orthodox Judaism and the liberal 60s was so well portrayed and kept my attention throughout. It was so good to see a strong central character in Juliet and yet to also see through the eyes of Frieda and Leonard as they picked their way through the quagmire of their colliding worlds.

I feel that a lot of background research went into this book and I'd like to ask Natasha how she went about that. Did the research develop along with writing the book, or did she do a period of research before starting writing?

I always get a little overexcited when I begin a novel. I start with an attempt to be terribly organised and research thoroughly, reading everything I can before putting finger to keypad, but then I find I can’t wait. I end up reading, researching and writing all at once in a big mess on my desk amongst piles of books, mood boards and scrawls in notebooks – most of which I can’t read. My handwriting is terrible.

Much of the research in this novel was done through talking to people who’d grown up in similar communities in the late ‘50s. I wanted them to recognize that world and find it very familiar when they read the book.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:27:21


I'm not sure I entirely understood Max's reasons for being so distant and not joining in at least some of the exhibitions or family and friends' events. I also found Juliet to be quite self-centred, dragging her kids off to California and accumulating all those portraits of herself. The impact on her children of her neglect of their aspirations didn't surprise me as her parents overrode her aspirations, too. The fact that she was Jewish was irrelevant for me, for much of the book - I had to keep reminding myself that this might be the reason her parents and relatives were not enamoured of her lifestyle and success with her gallery. The characters were all portrayed in a way that I didn't feel I could empathise either them, so when Tom's letter alerted them that he was going to take hoisown life, I felt no jolt of shock, or sympathy.

I'd like to ask Natasha - did you set out to keep the characters distanced from the reader? I found it an interesting book nonetheless and read it in four days. Are any more being written?

To me the characters aren’t distanced – I felt I knew them very well, they’re great friends of mine. I think perhaps several of them do possess an element of the famous English reserve. Juliet has become so used to being invisible that she’s wary of intimacy – I think perhaps the reader picks up on that. And yes, I’ve just finished my next book, for now it’s called ‘The Song Collector’.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:28:57


I enjoyed the book, but didn`t really care much for the character of Juliet, or even Max. I was horrified at her keep going off through the woods to Max`s cottage, leaving her children alone in the middle of the night. As has been said, I think by Rosesarered, why on earth didn`t she leave her area and live elsewhere, where no-one knew of her circumstances?

I don’t think Juliet is a paragon of motherhood – but I think a perfect mother would be very tedious to read about. Despite her embarking on a different kind of life from her family, Juliet never quite manages to leave emotionally. Later on, she worries that Freida wouldn’t come with her if she moved, but really I think that’s an excuse. There is a part of her that will always belong to that community.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:30:18


Thanks, GN and Sceptre, for an interesting read. The storyline is an unusual one, and such a self-absorbed main character is a challenge to make sympathetic. I wonder whether Natasha Solomons hesitated about this aspect of Juliet, surrounded by her collection of portraits of herself, 'with not one of the usual snaps' of grandchildren or babies, in view of the fact that she had borrowed a real person, indeed her Grandmother-in-law, for the basis of the story? Some of that character had been shared with Mrs Greene, of course, so perhaps Rosie Solomons appears in parts in several characters, like George is there in the totality of portraits in Leonard's sketchbook.

I found the essential Jewishness very intriguing, though a very short Yiddish glossary would have been helpful. I thought I had worked out the meanings of the words, but may have been way off beam.

The character of Juliet is entirely imaginary. I never met Rosie Solomons and so there can be no intentional similarity in personality. The similarity is in their situation -- both Juliet and Rosie are aguna with young children. I suppose I don’t find Juliet self-absorbed rather I find her profoundly affected from having felt invisible for so long. The relief of being seen by Charlie is overwhelming, and she revisits this moment again and again. She adores her children and grandchildren – however ineffectually. People often don’t say the things that they want to or need to.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:31:45


The way the book is structured is very clever, with each chapter listing the contents of an art exhibition like a gallery catalogue. I'd like to ask if Natasha considered including an actual picture at the start of each chapter? I must admit the first thing I did on seeing the references to paintings was to look them up on Google and was quite disappointed not to find them. confused
I enjoyed the book, but found it impossible to relate to Juliet.

Thank you! I couldn’t include an actual picture as the paintings themselves are all imaginary. They are inspired by real paintings (you can see some of them on my blog) but the portraits in the novel are invented amalgams.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:33:07


Thanks so much for my book, it was enjoyable to be reading a book again, after being dedicated e- reader for the last couple of years. I thoroughly enjoyed, the book; it is a well-crafted page turner of a novel, with engaging characters that ring true (although my experience of the cultural background is limited). I felt for Juliet in her state of non-being ... Being an invisible middle-aged woman myself! There were many interesting questions raised to ponder .. The value of art vs. a fridge being only the first. However, the small paragraph which remains with me and which I will consider much in the future is about our perception of art and whether we actually all see the same picture at all. This jives completely with the experience of reading a novel ... Do we actually all get the same from a novel? No, of course we do not. Which is why 'the book of the film' so frequently disappoints. I wonder what Natasha Solomon's strongest picture of her book is? Juliet emerging as a strong, independent businesswoman? Her relationship with Max? Or her children? Or the power of the portrait?

I love this question! I think the most important relationship in the book is Juliet’s relationship with her children. So, I knew that the last portrait had to be by her son, Leonard. There is a tradition in art of sons painting their mothers in age, (Whistler, Freud) and I find those portraits intensely moving. After having spent so much of her adult life feeling invisible as an aguna, she is profoundly affected when Charlie paints her portrait. She is always intrigued how other people see her – flattery doesn’t interest her. However, she is anxious to see how Leonard sees her and I think tellingly that this is the only time Juliet is actually worried about liking a portrait and discovering how the painter perceives her.

NatashaSolomons Fri 18-Jul-14 11:33:47


I hope I'm not too late to say I am enjoying reading this book, and am finding it quite educational as I didn't know a great deal about Judaism. I would like to ask Natasha what her family's reaction was to the story. Thank you for the opportunity to discover a new author whose other books I shall hope to read.

My family (and family in law) have been hugely positive – the character of Juliet is fictional but I think they were touched by the ‘author’s note’ and Rosie’s public acknowledgement.

Venus Thu 24-Jul-14 16:47:51

This is the second book I have read by the author and enjoyed reading it very much. However, I did find the first part stronger than the second part (where Juliet goes off to America) I felt that I was reading a different story somehow. If I was Juliet, I would have been very cross that Max abandoned her and did not do the trip with her as planned.

I was wondering why this story has the time frame that it has? Was there a specific reason for this?