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The Bellini Madonna

by Elizabeth Lowry


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 tea.

The Book

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
April 2009
0374110387 / 978-0-374-11038-3
More at
NOTE: Occasional sexually vulgar terms.

The Reviewer

Deb Kincaid
Reviewed 2009
© 2009