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Jilly Cooper's ritzy, riotous new novel takes the lid off the international art world - where successful young artists strut around like rock stars, where artful and crafty dealers indulge in every kind of gallery-pokery, and where the more beautiful the painting, the greater the backstabbing.
No picture ever came more beautiful than Raphael's Pandora. Discovered by a dashing young lieutenant, Raymond Belvedon, in a Normandy Chateau in 1944, she had cast her spell over the Belvedon family - all artists and dealers - for fifty years.
Hanging in a turret of their lovely Cotswold house, Pandora witnessed Raymond's tempestuous wife Galena both entertaining a string of lovers and giving birth to her four children. These children grow up into chilly, manipulative Jupiter, who runs the family gallery, Alizarin the high-handed loner, Jonathan, who blithely beds every beauty he paints, and superbrat Sienna, shortlisted for the Turner Prize.
Pandora, meanwhile, has been locked away in her turret, increasing her colossal value by the second. Then an exquisite stranger rolls up, claiming to be a long-lost daughter of the family and setting the three Belvedon brothers at one another's throats. Accompanying her is Zach, her fatally glamorous American Jewish boyfriend, whose very different agenda includes an unhealthy interest in the Raphael.
During a firework party, the painting is stolen. The hunt to retrieve it takes the reader on a thrilling journey to Vienna, Geneva, Paris, New York and London. After a nail-biting court case and a record-smashing Old Masters sale at Sotheby's, passionate love triumphs and Pandora is restored to her rightful home.
There's no-one quite like Jilly Cooper, and just reading her list of dramatic personae at the beginning makes one know one's in for a treat, with characters such as Alizarin Belvedon ('a genius tormented by a social conscious. Produces vast tortured canvasses no-one want to buy') and Kevin Coley ('a perfectly awful petfood billionaire') waiting to appear.
In this novel, Cooper has wisely moved away from her standard Rutshire setting, though fans will be glad to know that gorgeous Rupert Campbell-Black, his lovely wife Taggie and the frightful Dame Hermione Harefield make guest appearances.
This time, Cooper has chosen to use the world of fine art as her backdrop, focusing on the talented but tormented Belvedon family. Raymond Belvedon, fighting to liberate France in summer 1944, rescues a Raphael painting of Pandora opening the box which in Greek myth held all the vices of the world - and, last of all, the quality of hope.
Raymond later builds up a gallery and personal art collection second to none, but the Pandora retains a special place in his affections. He marries unstable genius Galena Borochova and they have four children before Galena's untimely death. Fast forward to 1998, and Raymond's household is about to be disrupted by the arrival of wildchild sculptor Emerald Cartwright and mystery Austrian Zac, who has a secret agenda of his own?
Cooper's writing is as engaging as ever, and her trademark preoccupations (most obviously her love of dogs) just as visible. The art world, with its combination of high talent and bitter rivalry, is perfect for her story, and she derives great pleasure from ridiculing the worst excesses of contemporary conceptualism.
Most remarkable, and what truly puts her in a class of her own, is her descriptive ability, never allowed to distract from the riotous plot but adding an unexpected depth to her tale. The characterization in this book is perhaps not up to her usual standard.
There are some excellent cameos, and Raymond's second wife, the terribly genteel Anthea, is brilliantly drawn, but the villains are disappointing - even David Pulborough, rival gallery owner and dastardly adulterer, lacks the force of Roberto Rannaldini of old. However, Cooper never fails to entertain, and her badly behaved upper classes, unruly lovers and ludicrous imbroglios are just as pleasurable as ever. (Kirkus UK)