Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review):
A terrific debut novel about the mystical and erotic power of art.
At the center of the center, as it were, is a hypothetical painting by the 19th-century artist J. M. W. Turner, one in which he brings all his genius to bear. The title of this painting is “The Center of the World,” and it features an astonishingly sensual portrait of Helen of Troy and Paris, with whom Helen eloped. The picture is so scandalous to 19th-century mores that it’s hidden away and believed to have been burned, but it turns up in 2003, of all places in a barn in the Adirondacks. It’s a testament to Van Essen’s control that he makes this scenario plausible, for it turns out that Cornelius Rhinebeck, the owner of a neighboring estate, was a rich captain of industry who, in the early-20th century, amassed a collection of European art, some of it acquired through questionable channels. Henry Leiden, who finds the painting, desultorily heads a small foundation and feels his life, and especially his relationship with his wife, is at an impasse, but the painting exerts an almost otherworldly influence on him. Van Essen creates a complicated narrative structure involving Leiden, Charles Grant (who posed for Paris when Turner was engaged in the painting at Petworth, the estate of the Third Earl of Egremont), Mrs. Spencer (Egremont’s mistress and the model for Helen) and the mysterious Mr. Bryce, head of a firm that arranges art sales and an aesthete who desperately wants to track down the elusive Turner painting. Actually, this masterpiece winds up turning everyone who comes in contact with it into an aesthete—and it also seems to have an almost miraculous power as an aphrodisiac.
Van Essen writes gracefully and makes accessible the issue of art as transcendence.
Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever and The Walking People:
Was J.M.W. Turner anything like Thomas Van Essen has presented him in this ambitious debut novel? After a few pages you will hardly care, as you will be gladly moving from the dinner table of Turner’s patron in early 19th century England, to the calculating art world of present-day New York City, to the rustic beauty of the Adirondacks and all its treasures, hidden and otherwise. In Thomas Van Essen’s characters and the impressive scope of this story we are given a strong case for the transformative nature of art, and how beauty can be a balm for the human soul.
Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet:
An utterly absorbing journey of the spell cast by a secret painting on those few who have seen it over a hundred and fifty years. Love and desire, treachery and mystery, great beauty and the loss of it and finding love at last when you thought it was gone — all kept me up late reading this passionate novel of human fallibility and immortal art.
Van Essen’s debut novel departs from the recent real-life discovery of maritime landscapist J.M.W. Turner’s erotica to trace a fictional portrait by the painter of a scantily clad Helen of Troy awaiting Paris…All who meet Turner’s Helen see simultaneously truth, beauty, and the impetus for sin. With the painting’s journey, newcomer Van Essen demonstrates a flair for dialogue and an appreciation for how art moves the human heart.
The main character in Van Essen’s ambitious debut novel is the lost titular painting by renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). The big theme is among the biggest: the power of art.
Mature readers will relish the intellectual examination into the powers of art and eroticism.
Historical Novel Society
Van Essen conveys all this with a surreal ambience that heightens the mysterious quality of his ever-changing, shocking scenes and characters. Notable historic fiction!