Les Yeux de Mona by Thomas Schlesser

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This incredibly buzzy debut is something like if an acclaimed art historian had written All the Light We Cannot See. Given that it’s written by a scholar and is in some ways an art history book disguised as a novel, it could easily feel didactic. But instead it feels passionate and engaging and really captures the freshness and wonder of understanding art, the world, growing up, through the eyes of a child. The story of a little girl losing her eyesight and her grandfather who cares for her, this book explores how art can help us interpret the world around it. Mona comes to understand not only the power of creativity but also how her own personal losses and small tragedies intersect with the arc of history.

This is divided into three broad sections: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Centre Pompidou. For anyone who has spent time in Paris museums, it’s also charming and evocative and a form of armchair traveling. The stories Mona’s grandfather tells about the artworks they see are vivid and informative, a mix of biography and interpretation. When he tells Mona in front of a Goya still life depicting dead hunks of meat that Goya shows us there are monsters hidden everywhere, that evil essentially can be banal, Mona grasps it immediately because the meat looks monstrous. It’s full of eyes, she says, and hides her own eyes. The painting is looking back at her. At the Musée d’Orsay, a curator joins their conversation and tells Mona that Monet painted the flowers in his garden in Giverny while he was in the process of steadily losing his sight.

Meanwhile, doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with Mona, who is mourning her dead grandmother and her increasingly absent father. The world feels overwhelming to her. When she visits a hypnotherapist, he points out that time is relative, that at eleven, your first memories can feel like a lifetime away. And in a way this is the point of the book. It’s a coming of age story about growing into yourself and processing the traumas of childhood. Art is also a medium to self-knowledge for Mona.

Les Yeux de Mona by Thomas Schlesser

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Miriam Gordis is a bookseller and English language buyer at Albertine. She previously worked in book publishing, most recently as a literary scout. She has served as a reader for the Whiting Award for Nonfiction and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Originally from California, she has worked as a legal translator in Paris and as a copyeditor in Moscow. She is a lover of non-fiction, visual art, pilates, and sunshine.
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