Doubleday, 2002; 307 pages
Matt O’Brien has a quiet life: A painting restorer with a particular love of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance, he toils away millimeter by millimeter, bringing old oils to new light. But one day he happens upon a painting in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum that is thick with centuries of yellowed varnish and dust. As he uncovers the portrait of a mysterious, beautiful woman, he finds himself suffering from an urgent sense of déja vu coupled with the pain of falling in love with a person long dead. Meanwhile, strange things have been happening in the museum since the installation of a wood-paneled room from Gubbio called a studiolo. As Matt increasingly seeks refuge in this magical room from the pressures of having potentially discovered a Leonardo da Vinci, the centuries slip away and he finds himself in the center of a love triangle, with Anna on one side and the Machiavellian knight Leandro, fighting for her fortune, on the other.
In general, I enjoyed this tale of time-travel and art history set in modern-day New York City and fifteenth-century Tuscany. The glimpses behind the scenes of the art world are interesting, the story of Matt's obsession with a woman depicted in an old painting is very romantic and intriguing, and there's just enough danger thrown in to keep everything mysterious and exciting.
I especially liked the idea of the studiolo being the passageway through time. It was a little like an adult version of the wardrobe entrance to Narnia. But I sometimes had trouble with the time-warp elements of the story – the main character would just suddenly fade out of one setting and appear in the other. There seemed to be a suggestion that the time displacement had to do with vanishing points and certain sounds or vibrations, but I would have welcomed a little more explanation of why or how it all occurred. Also, Matt seems to fit into that Renaissance world a little too easily, even for someone who's spent most of his career studying its art and culture. Things happen very quickly and without much explanation in that past world – one minute Matt is just encountering Anna for the first time, they have a brief conversation about a painting, and suddenly they're soul mates sharing rather intimate moments in her private studio. Would a woman from an aristocratic Italian family have behaved so freely with a stranger in fifteenth century Italy? I think it's doubtful.
The book is a pretty fast read, although I found the prose style a little hard to wade through at times. McKean has obviously done a huge amount of research on art and the history and culture of Renaissance Italy, and it shows – but sometimes not in a good way. A lot of the discussions about art begin to sound like study notes, after a while. McKean is actually a musician and instrument-maker, and the book includes some discussions of music which are probably fascinating to other musicians, but seemed a little dry to me.
But as I said, even with these reservations I still enjoyed the book. It was McKean's first novel, so I'm hoping for better things in the future. He's definitely a writer worth a second try.