Memento Park

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 11 May 2018

Member Reviews

The mysteries of stolen art from WWII have always intrigued me from a good storytelling aspect. When Matt discovers info about a painting that may have belonged to his family, there are a lot of family dynamics to get through to the end.
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Matt Santos grew up in the home of his parents, one generation removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, displaying a Christmas tree and not celebrating Jewish holidays or attending synagogue.  He can recall the three times he entered a synagogue as a child with his grandfather.  Now, as an adult working as an actor and living with his fiancee, Tracy he is as far removed from his Jewish heritage as he can get.  Then a phone call changes everything.  A lawyer is offering to handle a case of Holocaust art restitution for a painting by Ervin Kalman that last hung in his grandparents apartment in Budapest, in 1944.

On the surface this novel, Memento Park, written by Mark Sarvas, seems to be about the process of recovering Budapest Street Scene, the painting that was lost by the Santos family when his grandfather escaped to America and his grandmother was killed in a concentration camp.  But underneath there are multiple interactions that are all ripe for discussion and analysis.  So many different points that different readers will relate to and connect to.

Matt decides to work with Rachel, the Los Angeles attorney and follow the path of the painting back to Budapest and his relatives to discover if it really belongs to his family.  During this journey he tries to come to terms with the charged relationship he has with his father.   He says his father never taught him anything.  Matt and his father have, he says, a relationship of fear and and lies,  "This, I suppose, is my father's legacy, the ease of the lie the comfort of the half-truth.  The actor born in fear, borne by fear."

So many times in this book, Matt describes interactions as scenes, and watches himself from off stage acting a part.  He struggles with emotion and actually showing himself to others.  He remains hidden, the actor performing.  This, he also says, was because of his father,  "He also never taught me the more essential things - right and wrong, how to read a stranger, how to love.  That this omission went unnoticed by me for so long is, in itself, telling."  He comes back to this struggle with his father over and over again.  It informs all of his interactions with other people.  How he gets along with Tracy and Rachel, the lawyer.

He replays the story in remembrances, that he is supposedly telling to a night guard in the art auction house where Budapest Street Scene will go up for bidding in the morning.  He talks about growing up with his father and working with him at toy trade shows.  His father is a collector of toy cars.  Now he is going with his father to another toy show, Matt recounts,   "Once again, I knew the part I was intended to play, had so internalized this character, this first great role, that I knew precisely how to step in and play him.  My father understood, as good actors do.  He'd picked up on my rhythms and responded in kind and , all at once, we found ourselves returned to the roles that made us famous, these earliest portrayals of ourselves."  Such wonderful prose.

Tracy, the fiancee, a model, is struggling with her own demons.  She is working with a lawyer, to help a young man on death row in a Texas jail.  Tracy has been, interceding for nearly a year, helping to underwrite his legal team and coordinating an 'awareness campaign' for clemency.  Each morning Matt still wakes up surprised to see that she is his.  Tracy, he describes her, "..my flaxen goddess... I pursued her hard, proposed early, knowing how rare openings for men like me are with women like her."  This is another plot line that we follow throughout the book.

Another wonderfully descriptive quote about Tracy, that I could relate to in my own personal relationship,  "She was late, always late, I would learn, for her internal clock, set at a permanent forty-five-minute delay.  Even when I used the time-honored technique of padding departure times, Tracy maintained the forty five minute window without fail, some inner gyroscopic mechanism inexorably attuned behind time's flow. "

There is the lawyer, Rachel, and her relationship with her own elderly father, both religiously observant Jews.   There is the Rabbi from Chicago who may also have a claim on the painting.  All these characters help Matt realize his Jewish roots and give him questions and change his interactions with Judaism.

So many complicated characters and choices to make through out the book.  It is a gripping story and even if you think you know what may happen next you will be surprised at the ending.  People and objects are not always what they seem.
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Matt Santos is a non-practicing Jew and a first generation American. His father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, immigrated from Hungary in the 1950s. Matt is both surprised and puzzled when he is contacted about a missing painting that has recently resurfaced after its disappearance during World War II. The painting may have been stolen from Matt's family, and he may be the rightful heir – but only because his father has refused to have anything to do with it. Matt's search for answers leads him to Hungary in the company of his lawyer, Rachel, a practicing Jew. What he learns there will cause him to reexamine all of the important relationships in his life – his relationship with his father, his relationship with his fiancee, and his relationship with God.

This short novel has a nice balance of well-rounded characters, a strong sense of place, and a well-paced mystery that keeps the reader engaged. However, I never could get the chronology to make sense, and it bothered me throughout the novel. Matt's father's age and Matt's own age only make sense if the novel is set at least a decade ago, but the descriptions of the technology Matt uses seem more contemporary than that. Even so, I very much enjoyed this novel and I hope the author has another one in progress.

This review is based on an electronic advanced readers copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
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The thing that struck me very quickly about this book is how elegant the writing was. The pace was, at times a little slow, but it didn't bother me for this reason. I really liked the idea of the painting being a link between past and present and I thought the mystery was well developed and the characters were, too. I enjoyed this novel and definitely look forward to seeing what the author comes up with next!
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Thanks Farrar, Straus and Giroux and netgalley for this ARC.

Amazing introspective manly man giving in to his feelings and emotions about his family, religion, and art.
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This was a difficult book. A book I wanted to like and even sort of did enjoy. The nature of the first person narration makes it a more visceral experience and perhaps the very thing that drew me to the book is also why I struggled to enjoy it. Being the daughter of a difficult Hungarian father (and extended family) I am always interested in books that involve Hungary and Hungarians. There is a deep resonance with Mark Santos’ experience of his father. I think Mark Sarvas as a writer has managed to capture truth in his work and that is something I respected, it is what urged me forward. Unfortunately, the visceral nature of the narration, the evasiveness of the narrator and the story itself were a challenge to read through. I found myself putting the book down often. I think if you enjoy a challenging book this is a good read. There are deep insights herein and the author captures something really important, I just found it too difficult to enjoy even as I could see the beauty in it.
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Fabulous read. Well paced, lyrical, beautiful story.
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4.5★
“ . . . and I can only think about all I have squandered, the astonishing lack of care with which I have blundered through life. So much beyond recovery, things that can never be restored, truths devoured by time, by neglect.”

Matt Santos is sitting in an auction house, after closing time, in front of the painting around which the people in this story revolve. The very existence of the painting, where it came from, and to whom it belongs, has raised all kinds of questions about Matt’s family history. 

The auction house security guard’s shirt says VIGIL, the name of the company, but Matt reads it first as VIRGIL, so Matt addresses his internal monologue to Virgil, calling him by name throughout, which I quite liked. It gave the book a confessional, story-telling quality – a sharing of his most private thoughts which he is reluctant to face.

Matt is an actor, playing recurring supporting roles in television just often enough to be recognised in public and to earn a pretty good living. He lives in L.A. with Tracey, his fiancée, who is a fair, delicate model who is often away on photo shoots. A nice life, far across the continent from his difficult Hungarian father.

When he is told his family may have claim to a painting that was lost during WW2, he is intrigued. 

“The easiest solution surely would be to call my father and inquire. 
Ah. Easy. According to what facile definition of the word? There was nothing easy that passed between us. I was afraid of him as a boy, terror unmixed with the admiration my friends felt for their fathers, and—snicker though you might, Virgil—in truth, I feared him still. Not in the same way, not in so primal a manner—when I was a boy, the sound of his approach down the hallway could make the hair rise on my neck—but fear, nonetheless.”

His father paid more attention to his vast collection of model cars and planes, carefully displayed downstairs to be admired and taken to special sales, where Matt was then his assistant, the only time he could touch them.

“. . . my father avoided intimate companionship. I would watch as he hung up the telephone with someone he had known for years, only to mutter idiot as he retreated to his cellar full of toy cars.”

Matt recounts the past, but admits to us (and Virgil) at one point:

“My faith in my recall is shaken. I think, at moments like these, that I remember nothing, that my life is merely a script, a tale told, revised on the fly . . . ”

Scripts he understands. His father, not at all. He engages a lawyer to follow up the claim on the painting and is fascinated with Rachel’s comfortable observance of Jewish customs which remind him of his father’s father, who took him to synagogue once. She is amazed that he has no idea about even the most basic stories. He is intrigued.

As he realises how shallow his own life is and wonders what his father’s past must have been like in Hungary, he begins to open his eyes. He starts with the family tree.

“These tributaries of family ran into a wider river than I’d ever imagined, and amid them all, Szantos emerged like a thin green shoot rising out of broken concrete.
. . . 
Eventually, I returned the tree to its folder and stowed it in my drawer, uncertain what to do with it next. It had told much more than I’d imagined but much less than I’d needed.”

As a supporting actor, he’s always had plenty of idle time on sets, so to make up for the time he wasted in school, he used the time on various projects, continuing “my irregular learning, plugging up the potholes of my scattershot education.”

The painting becomes the latest project, but he sure learns more than he bargained for. 

I enjoyed the writing, the sympathetic characters and the whole storyline. This is a very modern young man, torn between his wish to understand his father and his lifelong fear (and sometimes loathing) of him. The women, the family in Hungary, the painting, and then his understanding of what it was then and is now to be Jewish. 

Thanks to NetGalley and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted.
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Fabulous!  Phenomenal writing that pierces you in quiet moments.  The story itself isn't what draws you in so much as the compelling character sketches and narration.
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A haunting elegy about fathers and sons, faith, and a painting with a past. Beautifully written and quir moving.
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There have been a number of books published these last few years about a lost and found painting which becomes the link between a past and present narrative. At first I wasn’t sure if I was up for another one like this, but the book description promised more. I’m glad I took a chance because I wasn’t disappointed. It’s about a lost and found relationship between a father and a son and about the loss and discovery of a man’s identity when he is dawn into his father’s past, but it is not a dual time line narrative. By virtue of the first person narrative, this is such an introspective novel. It begins with Matt Santos standing before the painting that has come into his possession through restoration efforts of an organization whose mission is to return paintings to the families of rightful owners after WWII. He stands before the painting the evening before it is to be auctioned off for millions of dollars. The story is told through flashbacks in Matt’s thoughts as he carries on a one sided conversation with the security guard who lurks. 

It is about the painting  and the artist, but it’s really about relationships, especially a father and a son. There is also the dilemma that Matt finds himself in with his relationships with two women. The painting connects the past with the present and when the truth about the painting comes to light, it connects Matt to the father he never understood. He connects to his Jewish roots as he discovers the role of it in his grandmother’s fate during the round up of Jews by Arrow Cross in Hungary. I found it especially sad that so much was unknown by Matt about his father and that void created such a distance between them as well as between Matt and his Jewish heritage. It is through the relationship that Matt has with his lawyer Rachel that he begins to realize what he has missed.  There are some poignant moments as he reflects on “my list Jewish childhood” and recognition of the importance of the Sabbath. I was also quite moved by the places that Matt visits when he goes to Hungary especially the “Holocaust memorial  on the Danube, sixty bronze pairs of shoes left on the embankment where many of the murders had taken place.”

This is well written and quiet except for the inner turmoil that Matt experiences on his journey to know his father and himself. Don’t shy away from this because you think it is a “religious” story . It is about much more - some horrific things that happened in Hungary during WWII that I just learned of, and it’s about love and self discovery, things that are common to all of us. 


I received an advanced copy of this book from Farrar Straus and Giroux through NetGalley.
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Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity for an honest review by providing me with an advanced reader copy.  

When Matt Santos, a veteran Hollywood character actor, gets a call about a painting allegedly looted from his family by Nazis in 1944 Budapest, his world becomes unglued. It's a novel of discovery, a love story of a father and a son, a mystery. Most of all, it is a novel of discovery…discovery of art, heritage, and, perhaps, faith. Well written with a great  storyline and solid character development, this is a novel of great depth, yet a fast moving, compelling read.
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MEMENTO PARK by Mark Sarvas provides some well-written historical fiction, a mystery and a study of inter-generational relationships. At the center of the story is a painting, Budapest Street Scene by Kalman, created in Hungary prior to WWII.  The main character, Matt Santos, is surprised one day to learn that he now owns this valuable painting that was presumably looted from his Jewish ancestors during the war.

His immigrant father, however, encourages Matt to steer clear of the painting, perhaps reflecting on the painful memories it represents. Matt is puzzled by his father's attitude and reluctance to discuss the painting (or much of anything, really). In a misguided attempt to reconcile with his father, Matt decides to leave his steady girlfriend, Tracy, and his southern California acting lifestyle in order to travel to Hungary with Rachel, a devout attorney helping him to prove ownership.  The situation darkens for Matt – on the personal front, with professional obligations, and on a spiritual basis as he begins to explore his own beliefs about Judaism.

I very much liked the references to Hungary, but I found the story slowed about a third of the way through. Matt's inner perspective is key to the story and offers important insight as he muses about his own relationships and about the painting's troubled history. MEMENTO PARK received starred reviews from Library Journal ("deft handling of aspects of identity in matters of love, family, religion, and loss") and Publishers Weekly.
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Matt Santos, a non practicing Jew and minor character actor in LA engaged to a model, is contacted by the Australian consulate because he might be the rightful owner of a painting that may have been stolen from his family in Budapest during World War II. Inexplicably, his father, with whom he has never had a loving relationship, will not discuss the painting or the family’s rightful ownership. With the assistance of an attorney, the devout Rachel, Matt travels to Hungary to seek evidence of his ownership.  

This is most of all a novel of discovery…discovery of art, heritage, and, perhaps, faith.  Well written with a solid storyline and good character development, this is a book of great depth, yet a quick moving, compelling read.
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There is a lot going on in this relatively slim book.  The main character is involved in a quest to gain ownership of a holocaust era painting that may (or may not) have belonged to his family.  The quest, of course, is much more complex than that, involving his search for belonging, for membership in a larger group, and even a search for identity.  His closest relationships are complicated and yet somehow superficial.  I found it interesting that each of those relationships can be symbolized by artifacts, whose symbolism I’m still working out.
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As a book blogger, sometimes you take chances on seemingly unknown authors and their works with the hopes that you might be blown away. Well, I took a chance on Mark Sarvas’ Memento Park and I’m elated that I did. This compact yet dense novel is about memory, religion, family, relationships, betrayal, art and so much more — but is immensely readable and relatable. Focusing on a modern-day C-list Hollywood actor named Matthew Santos (note that he shares the same initials as the author, so you can draw your own conclusions), Memento Park sees him acquire a valuable painting from a Jewish artist who committed suicide during World War II in Hungary. The painting’s worth a cool couple of millions of dollars, and Santos has acquired it because it apparently belonged to his family before being spirited away by anti-Semitic sympathizers prior to the family’s arrival in America. Oh, and the painting would have belonged to his father, but he doesn’t want it. So sets forth a mystery as to what Santos doesn’t know about his dad — a man he’s been at odds with for several years — and all the hidden things he harbours.

The novel is told almost entirely in flashback as Santos riffles through his memories while waiting for the painting to hit the auction block, or, more accurately, the night before it is about to be sold. Through this process, the character comes to understand the secrets that others withhold from us — or secrets that might be a product of our own imagining. The story offers a bit of a love triangle, as Santos is living with a model named Tracy, but also has designs on the lawyer handling getting the painting back into his hands, Rachel. However, the core of the novel is the binds of family — how sons and fathers bond or don’t bond over shared interests.

Religion plays a part in the narrative as well. Santos becomes more aware of his own Judaism after visiting Rachel’s father, who is a devout Jewish person. Part of the work is about the generation gap between the aged, who practice their faith, and the middle-aged, who don’t simply because of the trauma inflicted on Jewish peoples (namely, their parents) during the Holocaust. This aspect of the novel is wholly satisfying, because Santos seems to be almost Catholic in his religion, so for a non-Jewish reader such as I, reading Memento Park was a little like getting a window into a hardly seen world. And while the novel is about Judaism and what it means to be Jewish, there’s none of the stern-handedness that comes from reading a work of, say, Saul Bellow. As Santos is interested in pop culture as much as he’s interested in his heritage, the novel forms a border between the old and the new that is mesmerizing.

The father-son dynamic of the story is intriguing for me personally, as the relationship with my own father has been tenuous at best. Here, Sarvas speaks truths about the fact that fathers may do peculiar things that aggravate their sons, but such fathers love their offspring nonetheless — even much to the chagrin of such sons. As such, the novel is also between the most aggravating trait of any father-son dynamic — the keeping of secrets. There’s a lot we don’t know about Santos’ father, but that’s not a failing of the book. It’s just in keeping with the fact that there are certain things that fathers don’t want to burden their sons with — unhappy times, perhaps. Sarvas deftly paints a picture (easy to do in a book about art, I suppose) of the reasons why we don’t know all the things that, as sons, we feel privileged to know. In a truism, it seems that you only really find out what a member of your family is really like after he or she has passed on — as is the case with this book.

Even though, at first blush, I didn’t think that Memento Park would be a novel for me (I thought it might be too high-brow for my tastes), I am effusive in my praise for this book. The characters are surely flawed, but they’re interesting and not completely unlikable. There are flints of dry humour sketched into the dialogue, even as Santos is usually at wit’s end in dealing with others — he can be a bit of a misanthrope, but you’ll end up admiring him all the same. There’s also enough pop (as in pop culture) in these pages to keep more modern, younger readers glued to the pages. There’s a real richness, a playful back and forth, between various polarities (emotional versus intellectual art, for instance) that is riveting. To that end, Memento Park is a book about many, many things, but keeps the balls in the air without things coming crashing down. Is it a perfect book? Perhaps not, though I can wrack my mind all I want and cannot think of a singular negative thing to say about it. The novel is so deep on so many levels that to attack it for any failings might seem churlish.

Memento Park ties up most of its loose ends, and anything left dangling is an acknowledgement that life for these characters will go on after the final printed page is turned. In the end, this is a powerful meditation on the power of love, family bonds and romantic relationships. It’s about finding yourself either in how you relate to others or through God and religion. It poses all the right questions of this modern age, while keeping a foot rooted to the past. All in all, Memento Park is a novel that will leave you breathless, and, once you get the ability to breath back, you’ll want to reach for the phone to talk to your own father and learn more about him. Every good book should make you want to do something like this. This is one of them.
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This book is well written and somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough to me to give it more than 3 stars
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Memento Park is a story of restitution, of a man seeking to recover a painting he believes was looted from his family in Hungary during World War II. This art themed novel revolves around "Budapest Street Scene" painted by Hungarian Ervin Laszlo Kalman, history and relationships - between father and son, between client and lawyer, between Matt and his girlfriend Tracy and more. 

Memento Park takes on questions of authenticity and identity. This novel is full of painting references, some authentic and some fiction. The painting "Budapest Street Scene" seemed so real that I 'googled' it and the artist Kalman and discovered that both were creations of the vivid imagination of the author, Mark Sarvas. 

I was intrigued by Matt and Rachel's visit to Hungary and the description of places and his Hungarian relatives. Memento Park, Hungarian National Gallery, Dohany Street Synagogue, Heroes' Square, Kozma Street Cemetery and the memorial Shoes on the Danube Bank were unknown to me. Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. 

I recommend this novel to anyone who would appreciate the many painting references, literary writing, history and the complications of love and family. 

Thanks to the author Mark Sarvas, publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of MEMENTO PARK in exchange for an honest review.
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So I probably would have liked this more had I not kept comparing it to one of the greatest books ever written, The Goldfinch.  Something about the fact that both books kind of center around an obsession with a single painting, albeit for far different reasons, made me yearn for Donna Tartt's effortless character study and insanely beautiful prose.  This book wasn't quite at that level but I was more engaged the more I read.  I liked it a lot.  Something about Matt was both off-putting and yet I was rooting for him.  Plus there was a legal aspect to it (without giving anything away), which always interests me, being an attorney.  The title particularly has left me thinking about the book in a different way than when I was reading it and I can't help but wonder about the characters still.

Memento Park comes out TODAY on March 13, 2018 and you can purchase HERE. This was an interesting intersection between religion and art told vaguely through family history; I enjoyed it and you might, too.

These are the things I associate with Rachel, with the first time I awoke beside her: dusk in the city as the streets downshift with evening traffic, taxicab headlights plangently illuminating the avenues; the tiny crooked streets of Pari's Jewish quarter; bundles of fresh vegetables overflowing the stands of a weekend farmers market, earth-covered mushrooms especially; bales of hay, warm and pungent under the midday sun.
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A single Jewish man, Matt Santos, an actor in LA, is torn between a blond gentile swimsuit model and a wavy-haired devout Jewish attorney. (Is that a dated, or classic, conflict for a Jewish male protagonist?) Also, he may be able to sell for millions a painting (by an invented artist) stolen by Nazis, which has fallen into his life, if he can show it once belonged to his family. And his distant, gambling, volatile dad has a random hobby of trading in toy cars. 

The actor tells his story all night, in his mind, to a security guard before the painting's auction, and then the story catches up with the auction itself. The actor calls Joe the guard "Virgil," which seems more like the author's than the protagonist's literary allusion to Dante, since the actor doesn't even know the story of Abraham and Isaac, and he never mentions the reason for the "Virgil" reference.

Morally troublesome because unexamined is the sex scene in the Momento Park of the title, which is a real-life, mostly-ignored field near Budapest that warehouses discarded statues of Soviet oppressors of Hungary, like if all the Confederate sculptures were put in a park outside DC, or Nazi sculptures were gathered in a space outside Berlin. Why is this the place the protagonists chose to make love? Momento Park the place has no significance to the plot - Matt and Rachel characters go to Hungary for a few days to investigate the provenance of the painting, not to seek out weird tourist spots of Europe.

Sentences are carefully crafted and a pleasure to read. Maybe some stabs at drama could have been toned down--"I BURNED TO TALK TO MY FATHER."-- in ALL CAPS. There's wisdom: "Do not make the mistake of assuming that because you know what someone will do, that you know who they are." There's appreciation of the LA life: "I never lose the quiet thrill I feel exiting the McClure Tunnel at the end of the Santa Monica Freeway to find the Pacific Coast Highway unfurling before me." There are interesting interior thoughts and doubts.

The mystery of the ownership of the painting is solved deus ex machina - a box containing the answer is delivered as unexpectedly as the original call early in the novel letting Matt know that he might be the heir to the painting.

The novel is brief and briskly paced. Big issues like the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation of Hungary, reparations, secular/religious life, fathers/sons, east/west coast, reality/fiction, ethnicity/assimilation are considered. The ending brings resolution and maybe some character growth for Matt--he looks at life more deeply; the mood is hopeful.

There are endnotes, but curiously none highlighting the real-life story that everyone who reads this novel will assume inspired it--the Klimt paintings stolen by Nazis and returned a decade ago by the Austrian government, which story has been the subject of the film Woman in Gold and lectures around town by the hero LA lawyer Randy Schoenberg. Readers may also be reminded of The Goldfinch, another novel about a stolen painting and a difficult father-son relationship.
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