Book Review: "The Anatomy Lesson" by Nina Siegal

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Title: The Anatomy Lesson
Author: Nina Siegal
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Source: NetGalley/Publisher
Buy: Amazon | Local Bookstore

Set in the Dutch Golden Age, an engrossing historical novel that brilliantly imagines the complex story behind one of Rembrandt's most famous paintings.

Commissioned by the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was the first major Rembrandt work to catapult the young painter to international fame. Taking this painting as its inspiration, Nina Siegal’s novel The Anatomy Lesson opens on the morning of the medical dissection and follows several characters as they prepare for the evening’s big event: we meet Aris the Kid, a one-handed coat thief who is awaiting his turn at the gallows; Flora, the woman who is pregnant with his child and who hopes to save him from the executioner; Jan Fetchet, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; RenĂ© Descartes, who will attend the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment. And in the twenty-first century, there is Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting.

As the story builds to its dramatic and inevitable conclusion, the events that transpire throughout the day sway Rembrandt to make fundamental changes to his initial composition. Bringing to life the vivid world of Amsterdam in 1632, The Anatomy Lesson offers a rich slice of history and a textured story by a young master.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631) by Rembrandt
Set in the Golden Age of Amsterdam, a time of “tulip mania,” the rise of corporate finance, and some of the finest artists of all time, The Anatomy Lesson delves into the background of one of Rembrandt’s most acclaimed paintings, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631). The story begins with the sentencing of a “recidivist” (what a great word) thief, Adriaen Adriaenszoon, who is also known as Aris the Kid. His body is a mess of scars, branding, and childhood abuse - and he is about to be hanged.

Disparate lives collide when Aris is sentenced to death.  Flora, the woman who loves him, is pregnant her and her child’s only hope lies in Aris’ rescue. Meanwhile, Jan Fetchet, a local curio dealer has been paid to procure a body for that evening’s autopsy lecture to the Surgeon’s Guild. The head of that Surgeon’s Guild, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (who renamed himself after – yes, you guessed it – the infamous tulip) has commissioned a young Rembrandt Harmenzoon (his name actually made me giggle whenever it popped up, because I’m a child) Van Rijn to paint a portrait of the distinguished doctors to commemorate this vaunted occasion.

The story jumps from perspective to perspective, and includes the conservator’s notes. A conservator is someone trained to restore old or damaged paintings, so this point of view was especially appreciated on my end. From Aris’ tragic story of his life, and how it’s doomed to end, to Rembrandt’s struggle to paint a masterpiece, to Flora’s emotional rush to save the love of her life, The Anatomy Lesson is a solid fictionalized tale behind the creation of Rembrandt’s famous painting.

“She had loved him, Fetchet bought him, Dr. Tulp had claimed him for science, and I had wanted him for art. All of us sought his flesh. All of us have wanted to make something of this man’s body. But he did not belong to any of us. He was only Aris the thief.”
“This, I thought, was a portrait of human cruelty. It told of how men ravage one another in search of truth. How they carve each other up in the name of justice, and how they fail to see their own brutality.”
As I mentioned a little earlier, the story definitely jumps from perspective to perspective, sometimes in a jarring way. I found myself wishing the transitions were a bit smoother – while I do really enjoy multi-perspective narratives, it can be a bit rough going from a modern conservator’s notes to the thoughts of a 16th century surgeon. Still, I loved the intricate historical details and the research that the author put into it.

Sometimes it could also be a bit slow-going, and I found myself wanting to skip pages here and there. But I didn’t – because I’m a professional.

I would recommend The Anatomy Lesson for fans of art history, Rembrandt, and especially historical fiction. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Three stars.