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by Ellery Lloyd
Harper, June 2024
396 pages
ISBN: 0063323001

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Ellery Lloyd (British husband-wife writing team Collette Lyon and Paul Vlitos) are known for their infusion of art history into psychologically insightful suspense. In THE FINAL ACT OF JULIETTE WILLOUGHBY, they use that knowledge to craft a twisty historical mystery that explores many kinds of betrayal that can happen in any era.

Heroine Juliette Willoughby is an English heiress of the Downtown Abbey generation, but that's not how she sees herself. She has fiercely fashioned her own destiny–as an artist. She ran off to Paris with a German artist, a man whose supposed genius was recognised by other men. In this sense, she's reminiscent of Frida Kahlo and Marie-Therese Walter.

Inspired by Surrealism, Juliette puts its dream-and-nightmare visual vocabulary to devastating use. Her most famous painting is a Surrealist self-portrait as an explicitly rendered Sphinx. Inspired by her dubious family, who had got into Orientalist antiquarian looting in Egypt, the painting is an indictment of her entire society. It's also lost. Or is it?

In the 1990s, Cambridge art historians Caroline Cooper – a hardboiled achiever from outside the Oxbridge elites – and her upper-class sometime lover, the son of a truly nasty art dealer – become intrigued by Juliette Willougby's art and legend. Can they find the painting? Did she really die in a fire? Was she forgotten only because of the art world's sexism, or in history as in her painting, is there more there than initially meets the eye? The title also leads to questions: what was Juliette Willoughby's final act? Did it involve creation, (self-)destruction, or both?

Presiding over Caroline's secretly personal quest for the answers to these questions is her mentor, Cambridge art historian Alice Long. A woman old enough to remember Surrealism when it was current, she encourages Caroline to pursue her investigation.

Lloyd's narrative skips back and forth between Juliette's 1930s experience as recorded by herself and the young sleuths' 1990s adventure. The result is suspenseful and evocative. All the artists mentioned except Willoughby, her lover, and one other character are historical figures, and Lloyd fits fictional events into art history seamlessly. An eleventh hour twist is unpredictable, brilliant, and will make you go back and read most of the book again just to experience it knowingly.

This novel feels epic without any pretentiousness. It asks important questions: about why art matters, who gets to interpret it, how much control women artists have had, historically, over their legacies, and why critics might become emotionally invested in the art they study. It also suggests that the generations of women whose art is shaped by toxic masculinity, state violence, and other kinds of violence might have a shared understanding that is worthy of exploration it has not yet fully received.

I have been thinking about that last point lately because I've been chasing down and getting lost in the work of a brilliant avant-garde artist, Cozette de Charmoy, whose Surrealism-inspired work was for most of her lifetime overshadowed by the work of famous men, including prominent Surrealists that critics named as her inspiration. I am glad that de Charmoy is now getting a second look from an art world that is beginning to confront its own demons. That is what Lloyd's Cooper wants for Juliette Willoughby, and it's exhilarating to watch her pursue that goal.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, May 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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