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Literary Friday: The Center of the World

Friday, July 5, 2013

This week I read The Center of the World by Thomas Van Essen.  When asked about his inspiration for writing the novel, Van Essen answered that while in a nineteenth century nonfiction graduate course, his professor related a story about Ruskin supposedly burning J.M.W. Turner's erotic sketches. Van Essen began to wonder whether or not the sketches were actually part of a larger project, like an erotic painting unknown to the art world.  It could be possible because most artists of Turner's caliber wouldn't waste time on studies.

The Center of the World is told in multiple voices and spans the Romantic period when Turner was painting, the early twentieth century when the robber barons were feathering their nests, and present-day New York City and Princeton.  Turner is challenged by his patron Lord Egremont to paint a painting to surpass all others about a topic that, according to Turner, rules the world.  The subject of the painting is Helen of Troy, and the painting is entitled The Center of the World.  I won't go into details about Lord Egremont and Turner's conversation because it is very graphic, but this is the general idea:

The story is also about middle-aged Henry Leiden living in contemporary Princeton. He is a borderline alcoholic and seems so unhappy with his life until he finds The Center of the World hidden in an outbuilding at his family's lake house in New York state.  The painting has a supernatural power attached to it: People have visions, behave oddly, and can actually see Greek gods when they view the painting. Given the paintings ability to transfix viewers, it seems that it's a good thing few have ever known of its existence. The painting's power reminds me a bit of the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  Eventually unscrupulous art dealer Arthur Bryce suspects Turner painted something that has been off the art world's radar, and he throws tons of money, manpower and energy into tracking it down: Proving the provenance of the painting is a major plot point of the story.  I admit that I love the Romantic period in art, music, and literature, but The Center of the World transcends mere Romanticism and is something mystical and terrifying at the same time.

I kept my iPad with my while reading The Center of the World, and I want to share with you a few of Turner's paintings mentioned in the book.

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus


Near the Thames Lock, Windsor

Rome, from The Vatican

I found the characters in the novel to be either way too ruthless or insipid except for Turner's muses for Helen and Paris.  Although the depiction of Turner is historically accurate on a few levels, I struggled with his character in the story.  I did appreciate his dedication to his art and the process of painting The Center of the World. This novel is a must read if you appreciate historical fiction and Turner's art.  Van Essen's debut is impressive, and I enjoyed how the composition of the painting is slowly revealed through different points of view.

Literary Friday

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Until next time...
Ricki Jill


  1. Thanks for the book review. I have not been reading much because I have been creating, but I will add this to my list. It sounds like something both Steve and I will enjoy.

    I didn't realize you had a Westie and her name was Bonnie. My sister has Westie named Bonnie. Bonnie is the only dog I have ever known to watch TV.

  2. It seems difficult to write a literary pieces based on a visual that we'll never see, given how many perspectives one person can have on what a painting looks like. I'm sorry the characters weren't more compelling, but what a monumental topic to delve into for a first novel...and thanks for sharing the Turner paintings. I'm not a huge fan of a specific era of painting, but I've always loved the atmosphere in paintings from the Romantic period. They're so rich yet subtle!

  3. This does sound like an interesting book. We always say that the Romantic period is my husband's period as that is what he writes about so he is immersed in its art, literature, and politics. I had no idea Turner painted like the second and third painting - you always see the misty moody paintings like the first one you showed. I love when you learn something while reading a book so this sounds like fun.


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I'm Ricki Jill. Welcome! I'm honored that you're reading my blog. I enjoy sharing my creative lifestyle @ The Bookish Dilettante. For more information about my blog, please read the Start Here page. Thank-you for stopping by, and I hope you'll consider following me via email.

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