Early in this new novel, our narrator Matt Santos tells us nothing gratified his father more than the idea of getting away with something. It’s a casual comment, yet it gets to the heart of this many layered story about a restituted World War II Hungarian painting.
Matt is sitting in front of the valuable artwork at the auction house the night before it is to be sold. He’s addressing the silent security guard, as he recounts the history of the painting, the journey of its return to his Jewish family and the difficult relationship he has with his reclusive father, who oddly doesn’t want the painting. Matt lives in Los Angeles. He’s a minor but often recognized Hollywood actor. When his father arrives in LA for a convention, he constantly criticizes Matt, showcasing their emotional distance. There’s no talk about the painting. In fact, there’s never been any talk between the two about the family’s life in Hungary during and after World War II.
The restitution effort upends Matt’s comfortable life. His work with Rachel, a Holocaust restitution attorney, takes him to Budapest to obtain evidence of ownership. Matt needs documentation that can refute a counter-claim for the painting by a Chicago rabbi. His attraction to Rachel creates complications – Matt is engaged to a fashion model. But the problem is more about Rachel’s devout observance of Jewish traditions. It shines an unsettling light on Matt’s ignorance. He wonders how he can take meaningful ownership of the painting when he knows so little about Judaism, let alone his father.
Themes of World War II art restitution and a father-son relationship are prominent, but so too is a theme of deception. It’s reinforced by the sub-plot of Matt’s fiancé trying to stop the execution of a Texas inmate on death row. On the one hand Matt admires her efforts. On the other, he questions whether or not the man truly is innocent.
Memento Park is a rich story, but it verges on narrative messiness with so much going on. Fortunately, Matt’s seductive voice keeps us captivated – so too does his willingness to put away the scripted lines and fumble his way to the truth about the painting. And then, there’s that idea of getting away with something, so loved by Matt’s father – and so smartly integrated into all the relationship threads. It neatly ties everything together in the end.
A version of this review aired on WOSU 89.7 FM, an NPR member station broadcasting throughout central Ohio