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In this intriguing novel for adults, which combines a vivid sense of geographical setting and emotionally complex characters, author Erin Bartels narrates the challenges, restrictions, and fears two women face as they make their way in the world. Separate, side-by-side narratives relate the stories of Viviana Torrens in 1879 Toulouse, France, and Esther Markstrom in present day East Lansing, Mich.

As a scullery maid in the Toulouse home of elderly artist Monsieur Renaud and his sickly wife, Viviana wants nothing more than to leave her shameful past in Catalonia behind and become invisible. But an adversary in the household inadvertently leads Viviana into a future she could never have dreamed of when she is compelled by Renaud to serve as a model for his paintings. When she does so, she meets Renaud’s other model, a suave, attractive man named Francisco Vella, a Gibraltarian merchant who travels widely to distribute pigments to artists.

Vella captures Viviana’s heart and promises to return to Toulouse after his business travels. Meanwhile, Renaud recognizes Viviana’s talent for painting and becomes her mentor. Though Viviana had hoped for a happy future with Vella, events unfold in a way she could never have imagined as she is forced to flee for her life and pretend to be Vella’s sister.

In the present day, 44-year-old Esther Markstrom is single, childless, and living with her artist mother who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Esther’s family owns and operates a small museum that promotes the art and legacy of their ancestor Francisco Vella. Esther and her mother especially treasure Vella’s painting titled “The Lady with the Dark Hair.”

Esther’s uneventful life is upended when she meets her former art history professor Ian Perez, whom she hasn’t seen in more than 20 years. As Esther and Perez become reacquainted, they share their love for all things art.

When the professor, born and raised in Gibraltar, questions whether Francisco Vella was the artist who painted “The Lady with the Dark Hair,” Esther is propelled out of her monotonous, predictable life. She travels to Gibraltar to find the answers she so badly needs to prop up what she considers to be the only thing that makes her and her family extraordinary.

Bartels’ latest addition to her excellent novels for adults—others include All That We Carried and The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water—adeptly gives voice to the longing women in different historical periods have felt to know themselves, to express themselves through creative pursuits, and to find fulfillment by choosing their own paths. (Revell)

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