Elizabeth Lowry’s first novel, The Bellini Madonna, has a contemporary setting in
a dilapidated manor in the village of Mawle, Berkshire, England. The plot relates the search
for a valuable, uncatalogued painting—the last Madonna painted by Giovanni Bellini.
Art historian Thomas Lynch, a fifty-year-old egotist with a predilection for grappa, has
been dismissed from a Vermont college for sexual predation upon young students. He uses his
precipitous retirement to pursue his obsession with the missing Bellini Madonna. His research
reveals that the Madonna apparently came into the possession of the Roper family of Mawle. Yet
none of the Ropers know its location either and they are desperate to find it.
Traveling to Italy, Lynch surreptitiously wrangles an invitation to stay at Mawle by means
of his colleague, Professor Ludovico Puppi, who teaches at Padua University, Padua, Italy, and
whom he privately despises. Not long after Lynch’s arrival at Mawle, a search of the home turns
up a long-forgotten diary which not only confirms the Madonna’s existence, but that it’s quite
likely hidden at the Mawle estate. But, where?
While at Mawle, Lynch becomes sexually entranced by a young woman, Anna Roper, who—in
his mind, at least—acts seductively toward him, even though she’s involved in a
contentious relationship with Harry, a hired man on the Mawle estate. What does Anna want from
Lynch, if anything? He is consumed by thoughts of her. Why does he get the impression Anna knows
more than she’s telling? What’s going on here?
Elizabeth Lowry, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and regular contributor
to various literary review journals, writes The Bellini Madonna from a first person point
of view (Thomas Lynch’s), and in a diaristic manner. Her use of an unreliable narrator allows
her to craft an atmosphere of suffocation, tension, and apprehension. It seems implied that an
allegorical parallel exists between Anna, her ancestor Giuliana, and the missing Bellini Madonna,
but it wasn’t clear to me. As for Lowry’s Lynch, he uses florid prose, pretentious and obscure
language, and revels in self-indulgent, psychological melodrama. He is a lecherous buffoon who
sees his monomaniacal world through a sexual lens, which ultimately clouds his judgment. I found
it difficult to reside in the mind of this character for 300+ pages, but it may be your cup of