Natasha Solomons’ latest book, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands is a portrait of Juliet Montague’s life from 1958 to 2006. She chooses her own future by challenging her world both culturally and religiously. Natasha’s main character looks upon herself as an outsider and strives for an independent identity without losing the closeness of her parents and children.
The novel begins with Juliet being conflicted when she decides not to be just a mother, but instead, she wants to find another piece of herself. The author gets this point across by using the backdrop of the sixties where women were beginning to gain opportunities and were becoming more independent.
Juliet is also conflicted after her husband has abandoned her and her children, Frieda and Leonard, making her an ‘aguna,’ which is the Hebrew word for a chained or anchored woman: married but unable to obtain a divorce unless her husband grants one. About fifteen years later, on her thirtieth birthday, she decides to claim her own identity.
Natasha shows how Juliet was able to use the world of art to combine her passion and interest by becoming the owner, curator, and navigator of a trendy gallery in London. Yet, even though financially able, she chooses not to leave the Suburban Orthodox Jewish community because of the importance of her relationships with her parents and children.
Natasha explained, “I wanted to contrast the quiet suburban traditional life Juliet had with the new wave of ideas in London brought about during the sixties. She has the money to move away yet she has chosen to stay in the small house in the heart of the Jewish community. After being abandoned she is forced to raise two young children. She struggles with wanting to do right by her children and on the other hand her ambition pushes her to be something other than just a mom. I also had Juliet’s parents represent the more formal lifestyle while contrasting that with Juliet who in many ways rejected their traditions, which included falling in love with Max, a non-Jew.”
The author symbolized the changes in Juliet’s views through the hundred portraits painted of her, all painted by different artists. Each portrait caught a little glimpse of who she was at the time of the paining. Natasha noted, “The portraits express her desire to be seen and rejects the feeling of isolation. She is curious to see how other people view her. She definitely put the portrait by her lover Max into her bedroom to show she was in love with him. There is also the importance of the portrait painted when she was nine and stolen by her husband. She is constantly looking to retrieve it because the painting represents a piece of her that is missing.”
Although a bit slow paced at times Natasha Solomons paints a wonderful picture with her words in The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. Through Juliet’s life she explores many different struggles including the role of religion, of being a single mother, and striving for independence. This book is an intriguing read for those who want to understand the emotional struggle of a woman living in the sixties.