" The Discovery of Light, J.P. Smith's fourth novel, may be his most ambitious work so far. Smith characteristically provides a compelling, suspenseful plot featuring attempted murder, deception, suicide and adultery. But he adds another dimension in his new book: a counterplot about the nature of art and the creative spirit that is a homage to painter Jan Vermeer.... But writing a compelling, intricately woven novel of suspense and human relations does not suffice for Smith – he takes this a step further. 'None of us deserves the banality of real life,' he concludes on the last page. 'For us there is only the richness of art.' "

—The Boston Globe

"Smith is masterful, maintaining a surface as smooth and inscrutable as Vermeer's, toying with puzzles of perception, imagination, and truth. An arresting, erudite, and wonderfully eerie performance."

—Booklist

The Discovery of Light

Excerpt


It can only be late afternoon.

The light coming through the window is a wan autumnal haze on the wall, and yet the woman holding the balance, the woman who weighs pearls and gold, seems softly radiant as the frail beam breaks upon her, as if there were something hallowed about this captured moment.

Winter is coming. We know it from the jacket the woman wears, the ermine trim that keeps her warm. Yet it’s impossible for us to spy an outer world: men driving carts through cobblestone streets, women sweeping the dust from their thresholds, children bundled in woolens, playing at hoops along the canal. We know it’s there, though, we see the glow from the sky, but we sense that things are quiet. Perhaps snow is expected. People sit by their fires, waiting for the flakes to fall from the grey unbroken overcast.

It doesn’t matter. Clearly the artist means us to contemplate the stillness and consequence of the event in the room. The woman is holding the empty scales between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand, testing their accuracy, and suddenly, at this late hour, after a long day’s weighing, they achieve perfect equilibrium.

She has seen this happen many times; and each time, perhaps, she has found a certain pleasure in it. Perhaps, too, this is to be the last task of her day. It’s difficult to say.

For hers is a face that is impossible to look into, her expression indecipherable. The woman is oblivious to you. She is busy but unrushed, she has pearls and gold to weigh: a precise but effortless trade, one that demands time and patience, a good eye, a steady hand. The balance she holds seems to be reflected in her poise, her cool intelligent smile, the gentle pressure of the fingers of her left hand on the table. There is also the suggestion that another mystery has yet to be solved: that swelling that separates the two panels of her jacket: boy or girl?

Behind her, in a painting on the wall, terror and salvation as, sword in hand, the Son of God weighs souls. Sinners tumble headlong into hell; the elect sit on the cloud with their Judge: no one will escape this terrible day. So the woman weighing is surrounded by emblems of heaven and earth, she is a fulcrum in the middle of a simile. Yet the woman is in a world of her own, somehow removed from the simple lesson represented here; suspended between the life that grows within her and the fate illustrated in the painting on the wall; detached from things, remote from you, held forever in the amber of uncertainty.

As in a still life we sense that the carefully arranged grapes and pears and apples have reached their moment of ripeness, that in another hour or two decay will set in, we feel that what has been caught in this room, in this painting, this exquisite moment of repose and precision, of commencement and conclusion, will dissolve into a kind of chaos. The artist seems to be saying: this is the way things are arranged, in life and at the moment of our death, and this woman who weighs the objects of this world, the gold and pearls, not even she will escape what we know to be inevitable. Everything can be measured.

Yet she fears nothing. She is serene. She accepts things for what they are. She is merely an image on a canvas and so can feel neither joy nor sorrow, hope or despair. The day is drawing to a close in this liquid world of Delft, and there are no true certainties, neither in this place, nor in any other.

Fiction
“Old pals Nick and Rob are headin’ back to college. But not to resume their studies: they're pushing 50 now, with careers and families, and they’re both unemployed, laid off from well-paying jobs. Then one of them remembers an episode from their younger, more adventurous days, when they were known, occasionally, to partake of some not-entirely-legal substances. It turns out they know where to find two mason jars of a definitely illegal substance buried on their old college campus. The plan: dig the stuff up, sell it, make a quick profit. The plan’s execution: well, let’s just say it doesn’t go entirely—or even mostly—as they thought it would. Like Donald Westlake’s The Ax (1997), which features an out-of-work family man driven by desperation to find an extreme solution to his problem, Smith’s novel depends on the reader’s willingness to accept that an ordinary person will do some very uncharacteristic things to keep his life from imploding. A solidly constructed and nicely written comic thriller.” —Booklist
In this haunting and sensual story, first published in 1995, the violent death of a psychiatrist sends his wife on a journey into her hidden self. Jill Bowman, a Boston-based historian and professor, is engaged in research on the London Plague of 1665. Her life has long been bounded by academic obligations, responsibility for her autistic daughter, and life with her husband, Dr. Peter Freytag. Breathless opens with the discovery of his body in a seedy hotel room. But the real intricacies of the story that unfolds are those of Jill herself and her struggles with Peter’s sudden death, the secrets it reveals, and the shadowy parts of her own life. Although Breathless gives the reader an exceptionally intimate and comprehensive view of Jill’s life, it also becomes the story of her relationship with the detective in charge of her husband’s case, David Resnick. For breathlessness can be as much a condition of passion as it is of death. Love as a virus, love in a time of plague, the mystery and danger of desire: these are some of the themes of Breathless, a novel of compelling simplicity and astonishing power.
In this Barnes & Noble Discover Title, first published in 1992, 17th Century Netherlands intertwines with present-day America as novelist David Reid attempts to decipher the mystery of his wife’s sudden death through the paintings of Vermeer. Was it suicide? An accident? Murder? Was Kate leaving him for another man, or was she on her way back to him? Searching for the truth, David becomes entangled in a web of deception and betrayal only to face the difficult question: How much do we really know about those we love? Or are they like the women glimpsed in Kate’s beloved Vermeer’s paintings, somehow beyond understanding?
Following the disappearance of his wife Honnie, with no idea whether she has left him or been abducted, Adam Füst returns to work as assistant to a controversial Hungarian film director now based in France. At first it appears Adam will be able to go on with his life; but with the help of Cuvillier, a brilliant but amoral cop, Adam pours over the shards of his past five years with Honnie, only to discover how macabre her life had become. In search of his wife, Adam enters a Paris of nightclubs and gothic eroticism, a world which repulses him even as it draws him inwards. Honnie remains a haunting absence at the center of this novel first published in 1989, until one evening at dusk, the blue hour, this modern version of the Orpheus myth finds Adam descending into the underworld to rescue the love of his life.
After fleeing to Paris to escape communist rule, Polish émigré piano player Jerzy Wozzeck finds it impossible to support his family on his gigs. So when a friend offers a fat payoff for handling a string of deliveries, Jerzy quickly finds himself in the uneasy employ of an anonymous suit and his sensual assistant. With a couple of flawless jobs under his belt, Jerzy starts living the good life—until, on one such run, he stumbles across a corpse and realizes his benefactors will go to any lengths to protect their operations, including selling his soul piece by piece to maintain his illusion of prosperity. But when rival crime lords and hit men enter the fray, Jerzy plots to escape his boss’s dirty dealings—only to discover he’s in too deep to get out alive. First published in 1987.
For years, Alex Ostroff churns out unsuccessful, unpublished manuscripts. His rejection is complete when he’s rebuffed by London’s literary set. His exasperated literary agent encourages Alex to write what he knows, but the writer is loathe to reveal anything about himself. Alex follows the advice, however, mining his childhood for material. The son of Russian expatriates, Alex has a compelling past. His parents, glamorous figures living in France under assumed names, worked with a shadowy Frenchman named Felix Dumont in a mysterious import-export business that involved fraud, forgery, blackmail, and murder. Drawing from these memories, Alex’s new novel, Troika, finally lands the struggling author some acclaim. As his writing career—and the media’s fascination with him—gathers steam, Alex questions much of what his parents have told him. And when he unexpectedly encounters Dumont in London, he learns the dark facts lurking behind the fictions of his life. And what, exactly, have we just read? The truth, or just another elaborate fiction? The Man from Marseille first appeared in 1985.

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