Alternating between nineteenth-century England and present-day New York, this is the story of renowned British painter J. M. W. Turner and his circle of patrons and lovers. It is also the story of Henry Leiden, a middle-aged family man with a troubled marriage and a dead-end job, who finds his life transformed by his discovery of Turner’s The Center of the World, a mesmerizing and unsettling painting of Helen of Troy that was thought to have been lost forever.
This painting has such devastating erotic power that it was kept hidden for almost two centuries, and was even said to have been destroyed...until Henry stumbles upon it in a secret compartment at his summer home in the Adirondacks. Though he knows it is an object of immense value, the thought of parting with it is unbearable: Henry is transfixed by its revelation of a whole other world, one of transcendent light, joy, and possibility.
Back in the nineteenth century, Turner struggles to create The Center of the World, his greatest painting, but a painting unlike anything he (or anyone else) has ever attempted. We meet his patron, Lord Egremont, an aristocrat in whose palatial home Turner talks freely about his art and his beliefs. We also meet Elizabeth Spencer, Egremont’s mistress and Turner’s muse, the model for his Helen. Meanwhile, in the present, Henry is relentlessly trailed by an unscrupulous art dealer determined to get his hands on the painting at any cost. Filled with sex, beauty, and love (of all kinds), this richly textured novel explores the intersection between art and eroticism.
"A terrific debut novel about the mystical and erotic power of art...Van Essen writes gracefully and makes accessible the issue of art as transcendence." —Kirkus (starred review)
"Thomas Van Essen’s debut novel fuses historical fiction and thriller, with a bit of aesthetic theory for good measure...Van Essen is a lucid observer, whether detailing the creative process or lamenting a contemporary culture in which art is just another commodity. Transience is what holds together this imaginative reconstruction of art history—the transience of the mortal artist and even the art itself, which nevertheless helps us appreciate what persists." —The Los Angeles Review
“Was J.M.W. Turner anything like Thomas Van Essen has presented him in this ambitious debut novel? After a few pages you will hardly care, as you will be gladly moving from the dinner table of Turner’s patron in early 19th century England, to the calculating art world of present-day New York City, to the rustic beauty of the Adirondacks and all its treasures, hidden and otherwise. In Thomas Van Essen’s characters and the impressive scope of this story we are given a strong case for the transformative nature of art, and how beauty can be a balm for the human soul.” —Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever and The Walking People
"Van Essen’s debut novel departs from the recent real-life discovery of maritime landscapist J.M.W. Turner’s erotica to trace a fictional portrait by the painter of a scantily clad Helen of Troy awaiting Paris...All who meet Turner’s Helen see simultaneously truth, beauty, and the impetus for sin. With the painting’s journey, newcomer Van Essen demonstrates a flair for dialogue and an appreciation for how art moves the human heart." —Publishers Weekly
“An utterly absorbing journey of the spell cast by a secret painting on those few who have seen it over a hundred and fifty years. Love and desire, treachery and mystery, great beauty and the loss of it and finding love at last when you thought it was gone—all kept me up late reading this passionate novel of human fallibility and immortal art.” —Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet
"The main character in Van Essen’s ambitious debut novel is the lost titular painting by renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). The big theme is among the biggest: the power of art." —Booklist
"Mature readers will relish the intellectual examination into the powers of art and eroticism." —Foreword Reviews
"Van Essen conveys all this with a surreal ambience that heightens the mysterious quality of his ever-changing, shocking scenes and characters. Notable historic fiction!" —Historical Novel Society
"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...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." —The Masters Review
"...vivid and engaging..." —Proto Libro
"...a terrific refreshing look at how art impacts people and people impact art with the boundaries of acceptable tastes as to what is pornography changing between generations. Using an imaginary portrait, Thomas Van Essen provides a thought provoking tale of how important and influential art is to society." —Genre Go Round Reviews
"... an ambitious and impressive debut novel..." —Largehearted Boy
"Impossible to put down until the final page is turned...Telling of artistic beauty and sensuality, this lovely, intense novel mines the mysterious, mystical bond that connects lives over a century apart." —Curled Up With a Good Book
"...cannily exposes how passion can both derail and inspire." —Minneapolis Star Tribune
"I loved the The Center of the World. Rarely does anyone describe the workings of art world as well Thomas Van Essen has succeeded in doing. He captures the obsessions and passion of all those involved, most distinctively the intangible binds of artist, patrons, viewers and collectors. Van Essen brings to life the beauty, light and ultimately the effect that Turner's work (or any great art) can have on those whose lives it touches. 'The Sun is God,' proclaimed a dying Turner, and great art aspires to catch a glimpse of 'God' at all costs." —Suzan Woodruff, artist
"Thomas Van Essen’s novel deserves its success." —Wormwood
"[E]legantly delivered." —Library Journal