Jacob Boyce is obsessed with a painting, an obscure piece of Spanish Baroque art entitled ‘The Loss of Innocence’. The artist is unknown, although some believe it to be a lesser work by the famous Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Jacob’s theory is that it was painted by an almost unknown artist named Manuel Piñero a student and understudy of Velázquez. Every day, Jacob goes to the museum, finds his ideal spot on the bench in front of the painting, and studies it in minute detail. He assigns numbers to the different pigments, measures the distance between objects in the picture, and analyses the meaning of the imagery, jotting everything down in his notebook. Jacob believes the painting “may contain or demonstrate a unique mathematical formula” that could be used to predict uncertainties, like the tectonic plate movements that create earthquakes.
In pursuing this bizarre hypothesis, Jacob neglects both his job as an Earth Sciences professor at the university, and his wife Ella, who is still grieving after her father’s suicide. Nothing can deter him from his daily museum visits, until he comes home one day to find that Ella has disappeared. Unsure if she’s left him or if something more sinister has happened, he chases after her to her mother’s villa in Spain, and from there goes to Barcelona and Madrid. Jacob’s search for his wife soon becomes entangled with his obsession with ‘The Loss of Innocence’, the artist Manuel Piñero, and a mysterious young woman named Jude who has her own obsession with paintings.
Painting by Numbers gets off to quite a slow, detailed start, but I liked it in a nerdy kind of way. Jacob’s studies meant that I got to learn a bit about art and drawing, such as the use of shape, perspective, colour and symbol. There are also obscure theories about art and science, like the notion that a painting, if designed according to a specific formula, will react to being observed and begin to move in minute ways. This is something that actually starts happening to Jacob’s painting, although he’s the only one who’s studied it closely enough to notice.
Gillespie uses infodumps for all this academic stuff, but they feel natural enough. When it comes to details like character traits however, he employs more elegant methods, weaving information into the narrative when it’s appropriate to do so. I really appreciated this; I hate when authors just dump a clunky paragraph of character profile into the story the moment someone enters a scene. Overall, Gillespie’s writing is pretty good. I know readers are often worried about the writing in indie novels, and there is some misplaced punctuation and a few minor mistakes, but nothing to cause a fuss about.
The novel could use a bit of work in terms of pace and plot though. The mystery/thriller aspect of the story kicks off when Ella disappears, but for me the plot starts to unravel here, and it becomes rather dull. Jacob goes running after his wife, who has been spotted in the company of a mysterious man, but at some point he starts chasing paintings. It’s implied that his studies have somehow gotten him in danger but n. His short-term goals don’t always make sense, and most of the time he seems kind of loopy and daft. Overall, his character is a bit deadpan, and the mystery he finds himself involved in lacks tension.
There are also a lot of odd occurrences that baffled rather than intrigued me. For example, Jacob finds a beautiful but unfamiliar letter opener in his fireplace, then drops it into what looks like a pool of blood on his kitchen floor. The blood turns out to be candle wax, but when he tries to get the letter opener out of the wax, it’s disappeared. In Madrid, he goes to an art gallery and gets some kind of spasm in his foot that makes it difficult for him to walk or even put his foot on the floor. He also experiences sudden bursts of pain in his head, or sees inexplicable flashes of light. You have no idea why these things happen, but what’s even stranger is that Jacob acts like nothing’s amiss. He doesn’t ask what a pool of blood-red wax is doing in his kitchen or why it seems almost as if his foot is being repelled by the surface of the floor. At the very least I’d like him to frown and wonder what the hell is going on at that moment.
Another oddity is the way Jacob keeps having long, meaningful conversations with strangers. They eagerly discuss their personal philosophies about life and frequently give him lot of useful information or provide some kind of assistance, usually in the form of free stuff. I have to admit that Gillespie is very good at writing these conversations. They’re generally quite engaging, and although Jacob always seems a bit deadpan, the people he talks to are lively and passionate. The problem is that you’re left to wonder why all they all open up to Jacob in this way, and why they’re so eager to help him. One such encounter is fortuitous, but multiple encounters don’t feel natural and I wondered if Gillespie was just writing these conversations simply because he enjoyed doing it.
In the author’s defence, there is a twist in the ending that excuses all peculiarities, but I raised the issues anyway because the ending doesn’t offer sufficient explanation. It’s the kind of twist that should change the way you view the rest of the book, but for me the effect was simply to confirm that the story really was as just as unhinged as I’d thought. I think I can see what the author was trying to achieve, part of which is to create a parallel between Jacob’s life and the painting he’s fixated with. The ideas are great but the execution is vague and ultimately unsatisfying. There’s too much running around, too much confusion. And that’s a shame, because it had a lot of potential.