Review | The Very Picture of You, Isabel Wolff

Isabel Wolff’s The Very Picture of You is a light, feel-good read with likable characters. The novel has some beautiful, deeply emotional moments, and also has some scenes where the narrator tries a bit too hard to tell us about the emotion, and thus lessens the scene’s impact. Ella is a portrait painter who is hired by her half-sister Chloe to paint her fiance Nate. Ella had taken an instant dislike to Nate, but as she paints him, grows to fall in love with him.

I personally found the subplots more interesting. Behind Ella’s dislike of Nate is her hurt at her father’s abandoning the family when she was a child. In an especially poignant scene, Ella confesses that when her mother said she’d lost all photos of her father, Ella as a child

drew and painted him, obsessively […] And I believed that if I did a really good picture of him — so that it was the very picture of him — then that would somehow make him come back.

It’s a beautiful, child-like, innocent wish, one that stands in marked contrast against the adult Ella’s immediate distaste when her father emails her asking to meet up. The adult Ella is scarred, and her desire to refuse all contact with her father, warring with her lifelong desire to connect with him is a very emotional struggle, with which I can completely sympathize.

In some ways however, Wolff ends up overemphasizing the emotions. For example, when Ella reads her father’s first email, Wolff intersperses the letter with Ella’s reactions to each line. I felt like I was watching a TV sitcom with the laugh track telling me when something was funny.

There’s a passage I love where Ella describes the portraits she paints:

…a competent portrait just catches a likeness, and a good portrait reveals aspects of the sitter’s character. But a great portrait will show something about the sitter that they didn’t even know themselves.

It’s a beautiful description of Ella’s artistic process and gives added significance to the scenes with Ella’s subjects. With each one, she ends up discovering something the subject originally tried to keep secret. I found these side stories interesting and the characters sympathetic, though sometimes the parallels with Ella’s own life felt forced.

The main plot, Ella’s struggle not to fall in love with her sister’s fiance, felt a bit more cookie cutter and therefore less compelling. Ella forms a snap judgment against Nate, based on something she overhears. I found that conflict shallow and contrived, especially since it could easily have been resolved by a simple conversation. Later on, when she realizes she’s misjudged him and is actually attracted to him, it felt too sudden for me, and I think that’s partly because I found her gripe against him too easily resolved.

At times, Wolff injects so much symbolism that some scenes felt like a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy or a Nicholas Sparks melodrama that took itself far too seriously. For example, Chloe is most drawn to the “Giselle” wedding dress, inspired by the ballet of the same name. As the novel takes pains to explain to us, Giselle kills herself after being two-timed by her lover Albrecht. (I think she actually dies of a broken heart, but the general theme remains.) I love the reference to a ballet; I hate the ham-fisted symbolism.

The novel’s ending also felt too convenient, and the pun in the last couple of paragraphs just made me wince. It reminded me of puns or one-liners that sometimes end Harlequin novels, but the romance in this book just took itself too seriously to make that fit.

Still, like I said, the parts about Ella’s art and her relationship with her parents were interesting. I really like the loving stepfather, and I absolutely love the complexity of Ella’s mother. Ella’s portrait of her reveals pain:

On the surface it was the pose of a ballerina taking a curtain call, her left hand spread elegantly across her chest. But it was also a defensive gesture […] shielding her heart.

This image of vulnerability is coupled with a contrasting image of the woman’s being

every inch the prima ballerina. She didn’t just ‘sit’ in a chair — she folded herself into it, ensuring that there was a graceful ‘line’ to her body, that her limbs were positioned harmoniously and that her head was at an elegant angle to her neck.

With these images, we see what Ella meant about her portrait revealing the subject. Here is a proud woman, who always wants to maintain the illusion of control by disguising her pain. She is a controlling, manipulative figure who drives Chloe crazy with her iron control over the wedding plans, yet she is also scarred and sympathetic. She is probably my favourite character in the novel, and Ella’s relationship with her one of the plot points I found most interesting.

Picture falters in the romance department and could have used more subtlety in its presentation, but it also depicts an interesting family dynamic and I love the idea of art revealing things even the subject may not realize about himself.

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