Alternating between nineteenth-centuryEngland and present-day New York, this is the story of renowned British painterJ. M. W. Turner and his circle of patrons and lovers. It is also the story ofHenry Leiden, a middle-aged family man with a troubled marriage and a dead-endjob, who finds his life transformed by his discovery of Turner’s The Center of the World, a mesmerizing and unsettlingpainting of Helen of Troy that was thought to have been lost forever.
This painting has such devastating eroticpower that it was kept hidden for almost two centuries, and was even said tohave been destroyed—until Henry stumbles upon it in a secret compartment at hissummer home in the Adirondacks. Though he knows it is an object of immensevalue, the thought of parting with it is unbearable: Henry is transfixed by itsrevelation of a whole other world, one of transcendent light, joy, andpossibility.
Back in thenineteenth century, Turner struggles to create The Center of the World,his greatest painting but a painting unlike anything he (or anyone else) hasever attempted. We meet his patron, Lord Egremont, an aristocrat in whosepalatial home Turner talks freely about his art and his beliefs. We also meetElizabeth Spencer, Egremont’s mistress and Turner’s muse, the model for hisHelen. Meanwhile, in the present, Henry is relentlessly trailed by anunscrupulous art dealer determined to get his hands on the painting at anycost. Filled with sex, beauty, and love (of all kinds), this richly texturednovel explores the intersection between art and eroticism.