Monday, April 7, 2014

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Title: The Anatomy Lesson
Author: Nina Siegal

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Amsterdam / The Netherlands / Rembrandt / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Artist)
Publisher/Publication Date: Nan A. Talese (3/11/2014)
Source: Edelweiss

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A day in 17th century Amsterdam, immortalized in a Rembrandt painting.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Netgalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: Adore it.  The image at the top is from the painting in question; the hand is also from that painting and is a huge part of the story; the doctor is named for tulips.  Such a brilliant design.

I'm reminded of...: Kathryn Harrison, Ami McKay, Louisa Young

First line: At the first toll of the Westerkerk bell Adriaen Adriaenszoon bolts awake in a dank stone jail inside Amsterdam's town hall.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: The cover: I was seduced by it!

Review: This slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of art. And yet, despite the lofty themes, it's a wholly accessible, can't-put-it-down read-able novel with a handful of unforgettable characters and one devastating day.

Inspired by Rembrandt's massive painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the novel takes place during the day of Dr. Tulp's anatomy lesson.  The narrative shifts between seven voices and point of view, but rather than distract and dilute the tension and the story, this serves to provide a dense, captivating experience.

We meet Adriaen 'Aris the Kid' Adriaenszoon, a criminal who, after his hanging, will be used for the anatomy lesson; Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, an ambitious Dutch doctor who conducts the lesson; Flora, the pregnant country girl who hopes to prevent her lover's execution; Jan, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes, who will attend the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master painter himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment. And in the twenty-first century, there is Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting.

Each voice is so clear, their arc so well delineated, that the myriad of characters doesn't muddy the plot nor lose the reader.  In fact, the story is made more rich by the variety of viewpoints.  I was unfamiliar with this painting and the circumstances surrounding it, but Siegal articulates the technical aspects of the painting's design and layout as well as the (likely fictional) events leading up to it in such an engrossing way, I couldn't put this book down for anything but work.  (It also makes me yearn for more novels about specific works of art!)

Highly recommended -- a really fantastic debut.  For those who like novels about art, or historical novels that feature more ordinary people, this is a must read.  Fans of lightly literary works will want to pick this up, too.  You can read an excerpt at the publisher's website.


  1. I don't generally care for historical fiction but this sounds good to me.

    1. It's a zippy read if you decide to give it a try! Has wonderful emotional oomph with some grittiness.

  2. Great Review! I never heard of this book before.

    1. Thanks, Lauralee -- I'm sad it's not getting more attention. It's such an intriguing book, I think!

  3. Ok yes this one sounds good :)

    1. It was really quite awesome -- hope you like it if you read it!

  4. I didn't read much of your review, enough to know you loved it. I actually just ordered it yesterday, with my family background from the Netherlands I try to grab whatever HF I can from there.

    1. Oh, awesome! Hope you enjoy it -- let me know what you think. It has a wonderful sense of place, I thought.

  5. I *really* want to read this one. It got lost in the haze of pregnancy sleep cutting into reading time, but I hope to get to it soon. Glad to see you loved it!