The Memory Painter
Published April 28, 2015
336 pages (hardcover)
When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon (I was clearly a weird kid). The brain, in general, was interesting to me, but I was particularly intrigued by memories. Why did I forget things that my brother remembered in detail? Why could I remember other things so vividly? And why didn’t my parents remember anything?
The brain’s capacity for memory is something that I still find fascinating, which is why I was initially drawn to this book. But, like my aspirations to become a neurosurgeon, this book was better in theory than in practice.
The Memory Painter opens with a description of an artist’s loft. Canvases cover every inch of wall space:
The paintings themselves were an eclectic ensemble. Each image captured a different time in history, a different place in the world. Yet the paintings had one thing in common: all depicted the most intimate moment’s of someone’s life or death.
In one painting, a samurai knelt on his tatami, performing seppuku. He was dressed in ceremonial white, blood pooling at his middle. The ritual suicide had been portrayed in excruciating detail, the agony on the samurai’s face tangible as he plunged the blade into his stomach. Behind him, his “Second” stood ready, his wakzashi sword poised to sever the samurai’s head. In the next painting, an imperial guard on horseback dragged a prisoner across a field in ancient Persia. And further along the wall, an old man wearing a turban stared into the distance, as if challenging the artist to capture his spirit on the last day of his life.
Bryan Pierce is the unconventional artist whose work lines those walls at his studio in Boston. He is successful, and his art sells well, but that is not why he paints. His paintings are memories. Since he was a kid, he’s been having vivid dreams (visions?). In each dream, he is a different person from the past (Alexander Pushkin in 1837, Lord Asano in the Province of Ako, Japan, in 1701, a Viking named Bjarni in Iceland in 986, etc.). The dreams allow him to see the moments in each person’s life that were the greatest struggles and the greatest joys; often he experiences their deaths. When he awakens from these visions, he retains these people’s memories, their talents, and their languages. He immediately creates a painting to memorialize what he has seen and experienced.
When he was a teenager, his parents sought to help him in any way they could. He was repeatedly sent to mental institutions for evaluation and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Because the visions caused him nothing but pain, he used to keep his paintings private. Now, however, he shows his work in galleries for a very distinct purpose: “He put his work out there with the hope that someone, someday, would recognize his paintings for what they were, that someone else in the world suffered from the same curse.”
One day, he decides to try to clear his mind by visiting an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts called “Mysteries of Egypt and The Great Pyramid.” There, he sees a woman with whom he feels an instant connection. He follows her to Harvard Square, where they play a few games of flirtatious chess without ever learning each other’s names. Later that same night, she serendipitously attends the opening of Bryan’s new show (coincidentally, his work is being shown at her best friends’ new gallery). At the show, she sees a painting of the recurring dream that she has had since she was a child. Quickly, Bryan and the mystery woman realize that their connection may be much deeper than they originally presumed.
I wanted to like this book, but there are too many reasons not to.
The book’s pacing is totally inconsistent. The first quarter of the book is interesting and engaging—it coasts on concept (which is creative and fun and full of possibility) and reads pretty quickly. But then the book loses momentum and stalls out. The middle two hundred pages are repetitive and slow. We are introduced to more and more of Bryan’s dream lives without any movement toward a connection/conclusion. And then, all of a sudden, the last fifty pages rush to reach a conclusion. The book as a whole feels disjointed and messy. And, as I’ve mentioned before, books that start off strong and end up terrible are the worst kind–they leave me feeling swindled.
When balanced against the fun concept and decent beginning, inconsistent pacing, repetition, and a rushed ending wouldn’t be enough to give this book such a low rating. But these attributes put it squarely in the 2/5 zone:
- The moments that aim to be emotionally evocative come off as cheesy and silly;
- There is an utterly predictable (and painfully stupid) twist toward the end; and
- The book sets itself up in a very obvious manner for a sequel (which means, of course, that there isn’t a satisfying ending).
I wish this book had lived up to its potential, but it didn’t.
- An Indie Next List pick for May 2015
Who should read it: There are elements of The Time Traveler’s Wife and How to Be Both in this book. If you are a fan of both of those books and don’t mind a book with inconsistent pacing, then feel free to give it a shot. But if you get bored halfway through, don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees (English Pen Award Winner 2013; one of Publishers’ Weekly’s Best Books of 2013)
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Winner of the 2014 BookBrowse Debut Novel Award; Booklist starred review; Publishers Weekly starred review)