Every summer, like clockwork, I pick up one of those "beach reads" they start promoting on the morning news shows around April. I'm craving something escapist, something fun, something that makes me forget we don't have air conditioning. But every summer, like clockwork, I put it down half-read, usually because I can't bear to spend any more time with characters I don't like and a storyline I can't relate to. I think this is partly why Jill Koenigsdorf's first novel feels like such a unexpected gift. Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall is a thinking person's beach read. It's a good-hearted, well-researched comic novel that delivers on many levels.
The main character, Phoebe, is an artist who seems to be living the dream: a beautiful house in Sonoma County's Wine Country, good friends, a daughter in college and a job designing wine labels for a local winery. The reality is a bit more complicated. With the recession, the winery has cut back her hours and salary. The bank is calling with plans to foreclose on Phoebe's beloved cottage and college tuition is steep. And divorced Phoebe has tried to get back into the dating pool, but isn't encouraged by what's she seen so far.
Then the ghost of painter Marc Chagall appears at her 40th birthday party. Only she and her dogs can see and hear this apparition, in his painter's smock and wooden clogs. Now, maybe somebody with a less adventurous spirit or at a more stable moment of her life would call a neurologist, or at least her therapist, but Phoebe handles her mystery guest with the openness of a woman with nothing left to lose.
Chagall tells her that he's been sent to help her solve her problem, and is there because she called him. How he's going to help her and which problems he's going to solve isn't yet clear to either of them. What follows is a charming, funny ride, taking readers from California to a small town in Russia, a mysterious cafe in Paris, on a bike tour through the south of France, and into the world of international art thieves.
The story is told from the perspectives of several characters: Phoebe; Bernadette, the owner of an inn in the south of France; Ray, an American gallery owner and amateur art historian; Claus, a German gallery owner who has lost his way; and Marc Chagall himself, at various stages of his life.
Koenigsdorf has packed the book with history, art, beautiful locations, romance, humor and some truly memorable characters. I was especially interested in her exploration of Chagall's life and of the ongoing trade of paintings stolen during World War II, both from Jewish families and from abandoned artist studios and galleries. Blending those historical details within several storylines can be tricky, but the author pulled it off with ease.
Whether you're heading to the sea, stuck on the train or just curled up on your couch on a winter's day, Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall is the perfect book to lose yourself in.
Jill Koenigsdorf's short stories and nonfiction essays have appeared in literary journals and magazines around the country, including The Writer Magazine, Sunset and Tin House. Her story "Browsers and Grazers" won the Chautauqua Review Short Story Contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall is her first novel. Visit the author's blog.
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