Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Book Spotlight and Excerpt: Restitution By Janet Lee Berg

 


“Restitution” is the riveting, multigenerational story of Sylvie Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor traumatized by the memory of her art dealer father forced to trade paintings with the Nazis in an attempt to save their large extended family.  Sylvie’s adult life in 1970s New York is plagued by survivors’ guilt and bitterness.  But when her self-destructive ways threaten to upend the life of her Vietnam-vet son, Sylvie finally needs to face her demons.  She returns to Holland to confront her past and fight the Dutch judicial system for the return of the masterpieces, but the battle proves far more difficult than Sylvie imagined...

Weaving in tragic true events from her own family history, Berg offers a sensitive story of history, romance, and humor along with detail from the extensive research of Lynn H. Nicholas, the world’s leading expert on art pilfered during WWII. Over 80 years later, the real family still awaits justice and the return of artwork that continues to hang on museum walls, without noting their tragic history…    


Excerpt

Sylvie was disturbed when they stood in front of a boat scene battling rough waters; the artist captured pure fear on the faces of those aboard ship. She played a moment over again in her own head, gagging from the stench of fish on the boat she had escaped on. 

“Are you all right?” He reached for her elbow but withdrew his hand. 

“Yes,” she said, instantly shaking off the mental image as she searched the depths of his eyes. “I’m fine.” 

“I can see you really study the artist’s interpretation. Are you an artist? A professor of art?” 

“Me? No, I’m just a lover of art.” 

“I am, too,” he said. “I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as you. Sometimes I join the guided tours, sometimes I bring my own books on the subject. I come here every Friday, yearning to learn more.” 

“If you have such a strong passion for something, you will get what you want from it.” She didn’t tell him she was thinking of when she was a kid, studying books on art to impress her father. 

“Well, perhaps we will meet again in this very spot.” He looked into her eyes, turned away, and they went off in different directions. 

“Perhaps,” she said to the empty air. 

On the way home, she felt a skip in her step, like she was sixteen again.  A few days had passed. Sylvie looked at the calendar. Michael would be coming home soon. She felt anxious, ready to do something. Anything but shopping, she thought, now that she was actually trying to save money. Saving was never a part of her vocabulary until she came so close to losing the kids forever. She had to think of them first, and soon, she would have enough money to pay back what she had taken from the envelope under their mattress. 

She couldn’t shake that man at the museum out of her head. She wondered if her friend Cynthia was right about having romantic feelings again in her lifetime. Seemed impossible. She almost picked up the phone to call her, but she knew if she did, Cynthia would ask a million questions. Sylvie hadn’t even asked him his name. And what did he say? He goes to the museum every week? What day of the week? Did he mention what day of the week? 

She paced her living room thinking about him, trying to talk herself out of such foolishness. Then she remembered, heard his voice in her head. “I come here every Friday, yearning to learn more . . .” 

“Oh my God, it’s Friday. Today is Friday.” She took a quick shower, reached inside her closet, and grabbed the first skirt and a sheer ivory blouse that complimented her complexion. For a split second, she realized that it didn’t matter what she wore—not to someone like him, whatever his name was. He was really looking at me that day, not at what I wore. And he listened to me talking about the art, as if he respected me. 

Even stranger than that—Sylvie heard him, too. She was actually listening, and that was something she was never proficient at— whether a result of her hearing loss or not. There must have been a reason she was tuned in to this stranger. 

Sylvie craned her neck, searching for him. She tried to recall specifics about his appearance that day, mostly recalling his chiseled profile. There was that moment, though; they seemed to stare into each other’s eyes. She shivered, started to panic that she would never find him again. She looked hard at a man about his height, also with salt-and-pepper hair. 

“I thought you were someone else,” she said. 

“People say that all the time,” he laughed. He looked her up and down, and it gave her the creeps. After a couple of hours passed, she was almost ready to give up and leave the museum; then she stopped in front of a sensual-looking painting by Peter Paul Rubens called The Union of Earth and Water. She sighed. 


 The Union of Earth and Water - Pieter Paul Rubens

Was that her father’s breath again at the back of her neck? “Do you think they’re lovers?” A man’s voice startled her. 

Sylvie jumped. “It’s you.” 

“Sorry.” 

She was right about his eyes. They were deep and sensitive. 

“What did you ask?” She felt a wide smile about to cross her lips but held back, not wanting to appear too anxious. “Do I think they’re lovers? Hmm, being such a romantic, I believe they are, yes.” Cynthia should hear me, she thought. “Do you? Think they’re lovers?” 

“Not a doubt in my mind. I’ve studied this work before—her gentle curves, her pale white figure connected to his darker figure.” 

“Yes,” Sylvie said. “Do you see the way Cybele looks at Neptune, the god of the sea? Her posture is so relaxed. She looks at him as if nothing in the world matters but him. I love the swirling composition and placement of the flowers and fruits, the way the cloth drapes across their nakedness. Rubens idolized the Venetian artists—it shows in his work.” 

Sylvie realized she was talking too much and abruptly stopped to study his face as if it were another canvas hanging on the museum walls. She watched his lips moving and imagined what it would feel like to have them lingering over hers. 

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Janet Lee Berg

Janet Lee Berg is a native New Yorker with a residence in Charleston, SC.  She is also author of several other works of fiction and children’s books and has had her work featured in the local, regional, and national press.  A journalist in the Hamptons, Janet Lee Berg has interviewed numerous celebrities and pursued an MFA in Creative Writing, under the direction of published professors including Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes.  

 
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