Before reading the book, I decided to take a self-portrait — I know, I know, it’s called a selfie, but I am trying to be coherent with the book title — to feel the power of a portrait.
When you take a selfie, the goal is to feel pretty. Then you post on social media, and your followers can agree with you: yes, you’re beautiful.
But try to take an honest selfie, without filters and poses. What do you see? Does it feel good or do you have an urge to delete it? What stories does it tell? Can you be brave enough to share it with people close to you?
This is the ultimate goal of a portrait: to know how you and others perceive yourself.
In The Portrait, the picture has the same purpose but is also a means to an end.
Valeria Costas, a famous author, devoted her entire life to writing and to loving the wrong (and right)man. This is palpable in her secret relationship for thirty years with Martìn Acla. When her lover lies in a coma after suffering a stroke, Valeria tries at all costs to spend his final days by his side. As she needs a picture of herself for her new book, she hires Acla’s wife, Isla, an acclaimed artist, to paint her portrait. This way, Valeria gets full access to Acla’s mansion, family, and life.
“To be desired makes you the closest that you can ever be to feeling immortal.”
During the sittings for the portrait, these two women get to know each other better, sharing their secrets and vulnerabilities. The subject being painted is interpreted by the painter, but here the painter is also examined. In the meantime, Valeria wants to know if Isla knows about Valeria being the lover of her beloved husband.
As the portrait takes shape and the story unfolds, we watch these complex women struggle with the impending departure of Martìn.
If you’re into character-driven stories, this is the perfect book. The characters have great settings and a sense of their emotions. The one to blame for this is Ilaria Bernardini, the author, who is an excellent maestro of this orchestra of strong characters.
This book, which seems at first like a soap opera about a love triangle, is nothing like that. It is an intelligent construction of story. Although non-linear, it's easy to understand the characters’ backgrounds, actions, and reactions.
It is not a story of betrayal, but a story about love, trauma, grief, loneliness, fear, and pain. The Portrait makes us think about the “right” or "wrong" kind of love. The point of view is from the “other” woman, the one who is generally so easy to hate and to blame. The lover.
But Valeria is not a monster. She is a woman in love, fragile, and fearful.
This narrative gives a voice to the other woman, the betrayer, and to the story of two people who, right or wrong, love each other. And they do it their way. For the rest of their days.
And then there's Isla, his wife. But she is not a woman who is still married because of social constructs or who imprisons her husband in a life of hell. She is a woman who loves her husband. A woman about to fall apart.
The reader will instinctively want to take sides, but it’s not an easy decision. They all love and devote themselves. They all feel pain and fear. It is a book that you must read with an open heart.
Besides the awareness of their past and griefs, Bernardini excellently includes passages of Valeria’s short stories in the narrative. It shows how her stories were heavily influenced by her life, which makes us think of how much of Bernardini’s thoughts and experiences are in this novel.
“Will you write our story?” Martin would ask Valeria. “I always do,” Valeria would say. “We are in all my stories.”
It is a gratifying read, but there were some pointless pages, and it only elongated the suffering. This made the reading experience emotionally more difficult as well. The ending was satisfactory, but I’m not still sure it is the right one — or the one that I wanted — but at least all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
It surely is one of those books that stay with you after reading it.
"Look at me even when I don't want you to look at me. Don't make me disappear."
By Ilaria Bernardini
432 pages. 2020.