Is there redemption for people who commit horrific crimes?
Would you give immortal life to a loved one if it meant taking away his or her soul?
Can a vampire follow his baser instincts and still live a principled existence?
Such dilemmas twist ethicists’ brains.
Yet readers of “The Color of Light” may find themselves pondering these and other moral puzzles long after they’ve finished the haunting new novel by award-winning short-story writer Helen Maryles Shankman.
The tale she weaves in this enchanting page turner is not about ethical conundrums, however. “The Color of Light” is a poignant love story that brings us into the lives of Manhattan art students, Holocaust victims, and vampires. That Shankman can blend fact and fiction and make it all ring true is a testament to her fine writing.
The story’s Jewish heroine, Tessa Moss, arrives in Manhattan to study at the American Academy of Classical Art, a school reclaiming art from the 20th century by teaching the techniques of the Old World masters. Tessa opts to paint Holocaust-related images because of her grandparents, who are survivors. The fictional character’s family, like the author’s own, was nearly obliterated in the Holocaust.
Tessa is rejected by her relatives for her field of study and spurned by the man she adores. But her response to pain is ultimately one of optimism: “The terrible things that happen to us. What we do with them. I think that’s what makes us artists.”
She soon catches the attention of the school’s mysterious founder, Raphael Sinclair, who some say is a vampire. Raphael is drawn to Tessa after he spies her sketch of a mother at a concentration camp holding a child dressed in clothing from the 1930s, the mother covering the little boy’s eyes with her hand. At her feet was a suitcase with the name Wizotsky printed on it. Raphael is convinced that the drawing depicts Sofia Wizotsky, a Jewish artist who was the love of his life in Paris on the eve of World War II, and who disappeared during the war. He decides Tessa is the link to discovering what happened to her. But the pair soon find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other.
Readers will get swept up into the Manhattan art world as Shankman takes us on a journey to gallery openings, chic parties, publishing houses, and gritty New York streets. We find ourselves rooting for the art students as they battle against the trend towards experimental modern art in favor of art in the spirit of the old masters.
Vampires have become all the rage in recent years, both in literature and on the big screen – think Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” and “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer. But Raphael differs from the one-dimensional fanged creature to which we’ve grown accustomed. He’s aching for repentance, even feeling guilt over his craving for blood. This vampire is philosophical and reflective, questioning his role in the universe. “Do I have a purpose? Am I part of God’s design?” he asks. He wants to reassure others who might judge him by his sins that they don’t define him. “It’s not who I am,” he says.
And he casts judgment on the failure of men to stand up to evil in the Holocaust. “I could not have conjured up the kind of man who would be willing to design an oven that could be economically fueled by the fat of the men, women and children it was burning. I would not have believed that these same engineers would find other men willing to carry out their monstrous plans … that one kind of human being could industriously collect and kill six million of another kind of human being. Somewhere along the line, there would have to be someone who said no.”
The writing and sensory descriptions painted in this book are beautiful, with twists and turns in the plot that will keep readers captivated until the final page. This reader’s sole critique is that the steamy sex scenes were a tad abundant throughout the novel and not all necessary. Needless to say, I will keep this hidden away from my children.
Shankman’s background as an artist is apparent in her vivid portrayal of life in art school, from the odor of turpentine to the joy of bringing life and vibrant color to an empty canvas. Like the paintings its heroine reveres – the Rembrandts, Vermeers and DaVincis – the novel explores the contrasts of darkness and light, good and evil, and the gray shadows in between.
Readers will be grateful for that journey.