In 1912, Henry MacAlpine is a well-known British painter, living in self-imposed exile on a small island off the coast of Brittany. His old friend, William Naysmith, the renowned art critic has come to see him and have his portrait painted. Over the course of several sittings, we come to learn why MacAlpine has left London and why he has lured Naysmith to see him. Naysmith has misused his great influence as an art critic to destroy several painters.
It’s extremely rare to see an entire novel written in the second person. The Portrait is written as a series of MacAlpine’s monologues addressed to Naysmith. It’s a difficult technique, but Pears pulls it off. He reveals the backstory with great skill, painting verbal portraits of MacAlpine and Naysmith, while MacAlpine paints Naysmith. Pears is an art historian as well as a novelist, and he marries his two interests to great effect here.