The saying goes that you should never judge a book by its cover, and of course that is true. But when I received Tracy Guzeman’s debut novel, The Gravity of Birds, for Christmas last year, the artwork was so exquisite it was like a second set of beautiful wrapping, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. The (somewhat) mammoth To Be Read pile delayed that, but I cheated a bit and moved it a few places up the queue. I’m rebellious like that.
On the surface, this book tells the tale of an art authenticator and an art historian who find themselves working together to track down an as yet unseen painting by a famous yet reclusive artist. Simmering below this surface are the treacheries of sibling rivalry, betrayal, and how far we will go to get revenge for perceived slights.
Sisters Alice and Natalie Kessler meet the then budding artist, Thomas Bayber, during a summer vacation when they are in their early teens, and it’s a fundamentally life-changing encounter. What follows as the book unfolds, 44 years later, is a tale of young love found and lost, of jealousy, and of the cruelty of secrets kept. Guzeman’s writing is as exquisite as the cover artwork suggests, and the characters come to life with all their flaws and redeeming features. The only character who seems entirely unlikeable is Natalie Kessler, who behaves unforgivably, and the author engenders a real sense of loss and sadness in the reader when it’s discovered what Natalie has done (I won’t give any plot twists away, don’t worry!) that cannot be undone.
There were times when the pace of the novel was a little slow, but overall it kept me hooked – enough to have to find a way to keep reading even when the power was out. It’s the kind of novel where the beauty of the imagery and the realness of the emotions being conveyed draw the reader in until the very last page. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, which the control freak in me finds frustrating, but it is a fitting conclusion for the story that’s being told. All in all, it’s a fabulous first novel and I’m looking forward to seeing what Guzeman delivers next.