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Review: The Exhibition by Lisa Ottiger

The Exhibition
by Lisa Ottiger (2014)

[disclosure: The writer is a coworker of mine. I purchased this book without her knowledge but I wrote this review with her knowledge, mostly because I was too excited about the novel not to let her know how much I was enjoying it.]

If I begin with a plot summary of Lisa Ottiger’s The Exhibition, you might not stick around to read the rest of my review, so I’m going to say up front that I really enjoyed this self-published novel for its literate prose, interesting characters, and engaging story, even while admitting that based on a description of the plot alone, I might not have read this if I were not acquainted with the author. I’m going to recommend it especially for fans of upmarket fiction and historical fiction, but I don’t read much of either genre and I’m glad I read this, so pick it up if you just appreciate good writing.

In mid-19th-Century Paris, a Filipino painter named Miguel Rey struggles to establish his reputation in the art world. He has real talent, but his ethnicity and race may be too much to overcome in upper-tier Parisian society. He finds a reluctant patron in a wealthy snob of a woman who agrees to hire him for a portrait of her sickly daughter Inès. He spends part of his time with Inès and her family, working on the portrait, and the rest in his starving-artist’s studio, working on his art. Miguel’s a complex character given to violent outbursts fed partly by a fiery temperament and partly by a chip on his shoulder put there by a lifetime of being underestimated because of his skin color.

Other important characters are the young doctor Patrice, Inès’s brother and Miguel’s classmate in art school, and Leda, an employee at Patrice’s hospital who may have crossed paths with Miguel in her other job, late at night in Miguel’s seedy neighborhood.

The characters are well defined, and Ottiger gives us plenty to like and dislike about each at the same time. Some readers may have difficulty enjoying a novel with such flawed (read: despicable) characters, but I was sympathetic with them all even when I didn’t want to be. If it helps, one character does rise above the others in perhaps a typical but very well-developed way; I could feel the writer’s affection for the character growing with every appearance, something that makes me smile even now, months after reading the novel.

It is the writing that picked me up and carried me through this interesting story. Ottiger has a nice, poetic sense of visual description, as when she flashes to a scene at a cockfight:

The men wait anxiously, spitting red betel juice on the floor and fingering the anting-anting amulets they wear around their necks, arguing or craning their necks to get a better view of the sandy ring. Mostly shirtless and shoeless, the smell of hard labor and hard luck rises off them, lingering like a miasma in the low-ceiling room.

Her sense of place brings some new glimpses of even that most-described city in the world, Venice:

It is the beginning of February and Carnival has washed over Venice, an ecstatic flood of sensuality for forty days and forty nights lasting from Three Kings’ to Ash Wednesday. At night thousands of lamps light every bridge and piazza and the city seems to float on a burning black sea.

It brings me no pleasure to point out a few flaws, but my relationship with the author pretty much demands it. Like too many self-published novels, this one could really have used some professional editing. I know what it’s like: you are so familiar with your writing by the time you share it that you can’t see technical glitches you’d have picked up in someone else’s work. But the glitches are distracting. There’s also a strange tense-shift early in the story, and I’m not convinced that this is an author’s error. I have gone back to figure out what I might be missing, but it still looks like a tense-shift to me, dramatic enough to remove me from what is otherwise a rather immersive reading experience.

Unlike a lot of self-published works, I really think this one could have found a home if the right people had read it. I’m no marketer, but I know good writing when I read it, and someone should have found a way to make it work. If only they were all as well-conceived and well-executed as this.

Four stars out of five: I really liked it.

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