While reviewing “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands” by Natasha Solomons (Plume Original), the bestselling author of “The House at Tyneford,” I was also reading Ralph Ellison’s, “The Invisible Man,” and the thought occurred to me that invisibility can take many forms that might have nothing to do with skin color.
Juliet Montague feels invisible in her suburban, conservative Jewish community. Her husband vanished years ago, leaving her stranded with two children. She is considered “Aguna,” or more correctly, “Agunah.” She is neither a widow nor a divorcée—according to Jewish law only a man has the right to grant a get, a religious divorce, to a woman. Nevertheless, Juliet is chained to her marriage and forbidden to carry on with the normal activities of a vibrantly young, single woman.
But Juliet refuses to live by the suffocating rules of her society. On her thirtieth birthday, when Charlie, a wealthy artist, offers to paint her portrait, she decides to spend her hard-earned money on the portrait, rather than on a much-needed refrigerator. Besotted by Juliet, Charlie wends his way into her life, but Juliet is quick to remind him: “We are not like you…. Don’t be fooled by the electrical kettle …. The modern world hasn’t reached us yet. … You can come and eat strudel and everyone will be terribly kind… but you don’t belong.” The truth is that Juliet doesn’t belong either, nor does she belong in Charlie’s “white studio,” with its “white walls.” But that doesn’t stop Charlie from introducing Juliet to his artist friends and to a more exciting life, where laws differ from the ones she is used to. And it doesn’t stop Juliet, the good Jewish girl, “who had never heard her father swear,” and whose mother is “bewildered by the appeal of excitement,” from being seduced by the rocking, rolling, boozing, drugging, and dangerously exciting art world of 1960s London.
Charlie, recognizing that Juliet possesses an eye for art, invites her to run a gallery. So begins Juliet’s effort to be noticed through a series of portraits artists in her circle paint of her. Still, despite the “many Juliets” that emerge in these portraits, despite the recognition she garners in the art world, and despite finding love, Juliet will not feel noticed until she solves the mystery of her vanished husband. “My husband never divorced me.” Juliet ponders. “So I was never really married at all. I’m an adulteress. Well, I don’t really know who I am.”
As she embarks on a quest to find her husband, the reader wonders whether the Juliet, who thinks: “There I am, … Always about to fall; never falling,” will eventually tumble and fall, once she discovers the surprising mystery of her husband’s disappearance.
The story will especially resonate with many Jewish women who continue to suffer the shame and guilt of being agunot, and who, like Juliet, are left afloat in their quest to grapple with their identity.