‘Woman on Fire,’ Thrills, Secrets and Lost Art
Woman on Fire: A Novel By Lisa Barr (Harper)
In Woman on Fire, Lisa Barr returns to the theme of art under the shadow of Nazi Germany that earned her awards and accolades for her debut novel, Fugitive Colors. Barr, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, is a long-time art lover and journalist who is a former managing editor of Moment Magazine and Today’s Chicago Woman. Now, she brings her passions and life experience to fiction. Woman on Fire combines mystery, thriller and romance along with Barr’s penchant for strong female characters and her exhaustive research into Nazi-looted art, giving readers a page-turner that educates as it entertains.
Jules Roth, the novel’s protagonist, is a young journalist on a mission that sends her across the United States and Europe to find a painting stolen by the Nazis 75 years earlier. The object of her pursuit is Woman on Fire, a life-size portrait of a woman consumed by brilliant-colored flames. The painter, fictional German expressionist Ernst Engel, who also appears in Fugitive Colors, was murdered by the Nazis in their purge of avant-garde artists whom they labeled “degenerate,” and the painting disappeared. Jules races to find it, guided by her mentor, Chicago Chronicle editor Dan Mansfield. This search is personal for Dan, who wants to return the painting to his dying friend, Ellis Baum. Ellis’s mother, Engel’s model, was shot by the Nazis as her son watched. Ellis wants to see the painting of his mother one last time before he dies.
Every suspense novel needs an enemy, and here Barr gives us the strong, unscrupulous Margaux de Laurent—a Paris art dealer who would do anything to possess the long-lost painting. The twist here is that Margaux believes the painting belongs to her; there is evidence that her grandfather briefly owned the painting during the war.
REGISTER NOW: ONE BOOK, ONE HADASSAH LIVE WITH LISA BARR
Woman on Fire is the One Book, One Hadassah national book club pick for April. Register here for our Zoom event on April 7 with author Lisa Barr.
As Jules uses her investigative skills to track the provenance and whereabouts of Woman on Fire, we readers are immersed in the painful travails experienced by contemporary families still trying to recover Nazi-confiscated art. Barr forces us to consider whether multiple families or institutions might have a reasonable claim to the same artwork, and is there a difference between coerced sale versus outright theft?
The twists and turns of the story include a little too much hot-and-heavy romance for my taste (note Ellis’s “ruggedly handsome” grandson Adam, who joins Jules on her quest). But Barr also gives us more complexity than a genre thriller, delving into secrets of the art market and raising questions of forgeries, forced sales, provenance and ownership. Even Margaux, after breaking into an apartment to abscond with a trove of Nazi-looted art, asks: “If I stole from the art robbers—does that make me a villain or a hero?”
Elizabeth Edelglass is a fiction writer, poet and book reviewer living in Connecticut.