About the Book
A celebrated artist of the Georgian era paints his two young daughters at the family home in Bath. The portrait, known as “Molly & the Captain”, becomes instantly famous, its fate destined to echo down the centuries, touching many lives.
In the summer of 1889 a young man sits painting a line of elms in Kensington Gardens. One day he glimpses a mother at play with her two daughters and decides to include them in his picture. From that moment he is haunted by dreams that seem to foreshadow his doom.
A century later, in Kentish Town, a painter and her grown-up daughters receive news of an ancestor linking them to the long-vanished double portrait of “Molly & the Captain”. Meanwhile friendship with a young musician stirs unexpected passions and threatens to tear the family apart.
Format: Hardback (432 pages) Publisher: Abacus
Publication date: 27th October 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction
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The most impressive thing about the book is the way the author effortlessly evokes three different time periods. The clearest example is the first section set in the 1780s in which the story is related in the form of the journal of Laura (the ‘Captain’ of the book’s title), daughter of the famous but fictional painter, William Merrymount, and her letters to her cousin, Susan. The prose has the idiosyncracies of style of that period, exemplified in this passage from the opening chapter. ‘Mr Lowther called at the house again. He stayed for an hour & behaved with a Civility I had thought beyond him…. Molly & I later prevail’d on him to accompany Ma on the piano forte.’ Moving between Bath and London we witness how Laura’s desire for recognition of her artistic talent is thwarted by circumstances and social conventions.
The second part of the book, set a hundred years later, was much my favourite section. I loved the character of Paul, a young artist whose disability places limits – sometimes self-imposed – on his achieving the success his talent deserves. His friend, the impoverished Philip Evenlode, is also a wonderfully sympathetic character. I really became engaged in Paul’s story and that of his sister, Maggie, frustrated in her ambition to pursue a university education because of the expectation she will care for their ailing mother. There are some particularly moving parts to the book and, for me, this section could have been a novel in its own right.
The final – and longest – section, set in 1983, is largely a story of strained family relationships. It was my least favourite part of the book not because it’s not well written but because it seemed the most tangential to the story of fate of the painting. I suspect it may be of most interest to those who, like me, have read the author’s earlier book, Eureka, because it features a key character from that book, actress Billie Cantrip. In fact, this section felt rather like a follow-up to Eureka. What Billie did next, if you like. The final reveal of the solution to the mystery of the painting Molly & the Captain didn’t come as much of a revelation to me nor, I suspect, to other observant readers. However it did neatly bring the story full circle providing links between characters separated by centuries.
This is sounding like I didn’t enjoy the book; I did. It’s just I found myself actively seeking out connections between the three sections of the book rather than these emerging unbidden. Having said that, there were some neat touches such as the little ‘time tunnels’ that occasionally open giving brief glimpses of events or characters from earlier periods. If there is a recurring theme to the book it’s the barriers placed in the way of individuals – particularly women – to realising their potential in life, expressing their creativity and being recognised for their talent.
If it didn’t completely succeed for me, Molly & the Captain is still a skilfully crafted novel, impressive in its scope with some wonderfully drawn characters.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Abacus via NetGalley.
In three words: Assured, insightful, engaging
Try something similar: The House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy
About the Author
Anthony Quinn was born in Liverpool in 1964. From 1998 to 2013 he was the film critic for the Independent. His novels include The Rescue Man, which won the 2009 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award; Half of the Human Race; The Streets, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Walter Scott Prize; Curtain Call, soon to be a feature film starring Ian McKellen and Gemma Arterton; Freya, Eureka, Our Friends in Berlin and London, Burning. He also wrote the recent Liverpool memoir Klopp. (Photo credit: RWC Literary Agency)