Idealized and melancholic pastoral landscapes devoid of people. These are the paintings that Leo Millar, the protagonist of author Lewis DeSoto’s The Restoration Artist has made a good living from. Only after losing his beloved wife and son while on vacation in Cyprus does he begin to deepen his appreciation for the value of human beings, in both art and life.
In a state of despair, Leo travels from Paris to La Mouche, an island off the coast of Normandy. At the edge – literally, of a cliff – he sees a young boy, whom he initially mistakes for his dead son, in the company of a mysterious woman with long dark hair. These two figures – Tobias, a mute, orphaned island boy, and Lorca Daubigny, a clarinetist and composer – play pivotal roles in restoring Leo’s hope.
The novel is set in the mid-1960s, but written in a style that evokes a sense of timelessness and myth. DeSoto is a visual artist, and his attention to detail often lingers (ironically, given the subject of his book) on landscape and sensory pleasures rather than on people. Food, drink, and tobacco are authorial preoccupations – no cup of coffee, glass of Calvados, or good meal goes unnoticed.
Leo is a sympathetic, complex protagonist. But with the exception of his deceased wife and son – who remain vivid in the artist’s memory – DeSoto fumbles in bringing his secondary characters to life. In particular, Père Caron, the priest who suggests that Leo remain on the island, where he can occupy himself restoring a 19th-century painting in the small chapel, rarely rises above simple caricature.
The best moments are those focusing on the technical and spiritual aspects of the creative process. One moving scene features Leo painting a donkey; the painting turns into a self-portrait of sorts that vividly captures love, joy, and wonder at the miracle of being alive.