REVIEW: The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

In brief: Elizabeth Quinn and her brother Michael are pillars of the town of Maitland. When Elizabeth becomes unwell at an exhibition, their ward Jane knows something isn’t right. What was it that caused Elizabeth to fall back into the past?

The good: Lovely historical story with added mystery.

The not-so-good: Some of the characters are revolting (intentionally so)

Why I chose it: Part of the Herstory historical fiction collection from Harlequin – thank you for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 374

Publisher: HQ (Harlequin)

Setting: New South Wales, Australia and England

Rating: 9 out of 10

I’m really enjoying the collection of historical fiction novels that make up Harlequin’s Herstory, about women through history who have rebelled. It allows me to explore new authors, and new time periods outside my usual go-tos. I used to love Australian historical fiction as a teenager but somewhere in my adult life it fell by the wayside for the latest, modern global blockbusters. It was lovely to become reacquainted with Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in The Girl in the Painting. This story has all a historical fiction reader could want – a journey to Australia, establishment in country Australia during the gold rush and settling in a historic town. Add to that a touch of romance and a mystery which makes The Girl in the Painting a very satisfying read.

The story starts in Maitland, a town in New South Wales, in 1913. Brother and sister Michael and Elizabeth Quinn are somewhat of an institution locally for their businesses and generosity. Jane, an orphan they took in for her extraordinary prowess with numbers, lives with them and is hoping to go to university once she turns 21. Meanwhile, Jane assists in the accounts and the auction house. All is well in the Quinn household until Elizabeth takes a funny turn when viewing an exhibition of taxidermy and paintings. Nobody, not even Elizabeth, knows what brought it on. Jane is determined to use logic and deduction to find out the cause, which turns out to be more complex than anyone had dreamed of. Interspersed with this is the story of Michael and Elizabeth coming to Australia from England and making their way on the gold fields. For Elizabeth, that time is formative as it introduces her to mathematics and her first love. But what does the past have to do with Elizabeth’s fears?

The Girl in the Painting should not be discarded as another ‘girl’ story. It’s a fascinating look at memory through the eyes of a mystery, limited by technology at the time. (At one point Jane laments as to why people’s blood can’t be tested for likeness). Who is Elizabeth and what is causing these memories to come forward years later? The reader explores the dilemma from Elizabeth, Jane and Michael’s point of view which brings new clues and red herrings to the reader as well as enriching the overall story. It’s a cleverly woven tale, easy to read and simple to keep track of, even with different points of view and time periods. Tea Cooper engages the reader easily, hooking them with likeable, strong characters and an engrossing plot. The Girl in the Painting reminded me of why I love historical fiction – Tea Cooper writes history brought to life with characters you not only care about, but want the best for. It’s a novel you can happily sit and keep reading just a bit more…and more…until you’ve devoured the entire novel. Luckily for me, Tea Cooper has a back catalogue for me to make my way through, and a new eBook (The House on Boundary Street) available in July 2020.

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