Thomas Van Essen has crafted an excellent tale in his debut novel, “The Center of the World.” We’re calling this book ‘A Great Summer Read’ in the highest regard, because it belongs not with the airport paperback beach-reads, but among those rare page turners of higher literary esteem.
The book focuses on a painting, The Center of the World, a depiction of Helen of Troy painted by the famous, JMW Turner. The narrative alternates between present-day New England and nineteenth-century Europe, offering glimpses of the exotic painting as its presence begins to upend the lives of the people it touches.
This book is as much an examination of the power of art as it is of human fallibility. In this case, the painting’s erotic beauty threatens to become a modern man’s undoing and its conception in nineteenth-century Europe exposes, and also fuels, fear surrounding its erotic power.
The mystery of the painting and the narrative structure are executed nicely and Van Essen provides a lovely context for how people relate to art. The pages turn easily and on a warm summer night you’ll find, as we did, Van Essen is a great new voice to curl up with. Love, sex, beauty, erotica, all with some literary flare: a great summer read.
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer