In “Woman on Fire,” author Lisa Barr immerses readers into the world of art—now and during the Holocaust—and how the art world, the buying and selling of paintings by famous artists, even today is impacted by what the Nazis did. Barr begins the story with one of the main characters, Jules Roth, in danger during an art exhibit. The story then takes us back 18 months in time and cleverly provides the background for that event. It also shares the fascinating story of lost artwork, Nazi theft and destruction of artwork, hidden identities, psychopathy, drugs, artists, and journalism.
Jules Roth is the central character and while we admire her pluck and determination, we see her naiveté which results in a deadly mistake. Her nemesis is a woman who is completely amoral and who will do anything to increase her power, fortune, and fame. Throughout the course of the novel, we wonder—and then find out—just how far she will go to do that. Jules brazenly talks her way into a job with a major Chicago newspaper, and then becomes part of an investigative team trying to find an Impressionist painting, Woman on Fire, by an artist who was killed by the Nazis and whose works were banned by them. Where did this magnificent painting end up and who has it? Two people—at odds with each other—are determined to regain possession of this painting.
Both of the seekers of the painting are determined to own the artwork; each for very different reasons. The painting is important to both of them for similar reasons, though. Each has a beloved relative to whom the painting meant a lot, and each wanted to get the art because of their love for that relative. Jules is determined to find the painting, but we wonder if that determination will cost her her life.
Barr’s narrative provides a lot of background on the Nazis and how they censored artists and destroyed artwork they didn’t approve of. It also exposes the underworld of art, the seamy side of that business that includes stolen artwork sold on the black market to drug dealers and members of the mafia. Great artwork, often stolen from Jewish families during the Holocaust, will never see the light of day because of its lack of provenance.
There’s a bit of romance, some mystery, and some thrills. Most of all there are realistic characters who each are flawed—some more than others. It’s a book filled with history, action, art, and strong women, and a book that book clubs would have a good time discussing.
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback edition provided by the publisher, Harper, for review purposes.