The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal
Published by Nan A. Talese on 03.11.2014
Genres: Historical, Literary Fiction
Source: Nan A. Talese
Set in seventeenth-century Holland, an engrossing historical novel that brilliantly imagines the complex story behind one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings
Commissioned by a prominent Amsterdam medical guild, The Anatomical Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was one of Rembrandt’s first paintings to gain public notice. The novel opens on the morning of the medical dissection, and, as they prepare for that evening’s big event, it follows several characters: a one-handed coat thief called Aris the Kid, who is awaiting his turn at the gallows; the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment; Jan Fetchet, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; Flora, the woman pregnant with Aris’s child, who hopes to collect her lover’s body for a Christian burial before it’s too late; René Descartes, who attended the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting in the future. As the story builds to its dramatic and inevitable conclusion, the events that transpire throughout the day sway Rembrandt to change his initial composition in a fundamental way. Bringing to life the vivid world of Amsterdam in 1632, The Anatomy Lesson offers a rich slice of history and a textured story by a masterful young writer.
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I am going to just come out and say this: I’m not an art connoisseur. I can’t stand for hours staring at a painting, inspecting the textures and colors and brush technique. Give me a concert hall and a beautiful concerto to listen to or even just a plain piano recital and I will be happy. My art is printed sheet music and I use my ears (and my fingers) to coax it out once the rough learning with the pages has been done. Still, there are times every now and then that I pass by a painting or am introduced to some famous work of art and I wonder at the story behind it. I’ve never understood the fascination with a certain famous woman’s smile, but I do understand some of the dreaminess of Degas and can admire the lifelike figures and shading of Rembrandt. The Anatomy Lesson takes a look at the first painting that Rembrandt signed just that, a single word, as his signature. It’s a famous painting of men with a corpse cast into the light and the inner workings of the arm displayed for all to see.
So, having said all of that, trust me when I say you do not have to be an art lover or connoisseur or even slightly knowledgeable about art to understand and love The Anatomy Lesson. Told from several different points of view – from the head surgeon to the thinker Rene Descartes, to the artist, to the man who procures the dead bodies to be painted and studied all the way to the actual criminal who died in a hanging and a modern day curator, this story looks at a piece of art from every perspective. It’s thrilling, interesting, and thought-provoking.
What I do recommend during the reading of The Anatomy Lesson is easy access to the internet. Have the piece of art ready for easy viewing. I found myself referencing it a number of times (ignore all of the stupid parodies out there on the internet … it’s a strange place out there, folks). It’s interesting, once you know what to look for, what comes to light. Siegal’s research and knowledge shines through the story, especially in the sections where the restoration and study of the painting is being described. Additionally, I’ve rarely come across a book that deals so well with the history, crime system, and laws of Holland – come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read a historical fiction based in Holland at all.
The Anatomy Lesson is being released in March. It’s a refreshing breath of fresh air to the historical genre – something completely different from other books that I’ve been reading in the genre. I recommend this book for not only your own library, but also for those who are searching and requesting something different to add to their shelves. It transcends the historical fiction genre and becomes a literary, beautiful piece of work.
Have you read The Anatomy Lesson? Comment below with a link to your review!