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Reviews of The Painter's Daughters by Emily Howes

The Painter's Daughters

A Novel

by Emily Howes

The Painter's Daughters by Emily Howes X
The Painter's Daughters by Emily Howes
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  • Published:
    Feb 2024, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Katharine Blatchford
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Book Summary

A "beautifully written" (Hilary Mantel) story of love, madness, sisterly devotion, and control, about the two beloved daughters of renowned 1700s English painter Thomas Gainsborough, who struggle to live up to the perfect image the world so admired in their portraits.

Peggy and Molly Gainsborough—the daughters of one of England's most famous portrait artists of the 1700s and the frequent subject of his work—are best friends. They spy on their father as he paints, rankle their mother as she manages the household, and run barefoot through the muddy fields that surround their home. But there is another reason they are inseparable: from a young age, Molly periodically experiences bouts of mental confusion, even forgetting who she is, and Peggy instinctively knows she must help cover up her sister's condition.

When the family moves to Bath, it's not so easy to hide Molly's slip-ups. There, the sisters are thrown into the whirlwind of polite society, where the codes of behavior are crystal clear. Molly dreams of a normal life but slides deeper and more publicly into her delusions. By now, Peggy knows the shadow of an asylum looms for women like Molly, and she goes to greater lengths to protect her sister's secret.

But when Peggy unexpectedly falls in love with her father's friend, the charming composer Johann Fischer, the sisters' precarious situation is thrown catastrophically off course. Her burgeoning love for Johann sparks the bitterest of betrayals, forcing Peggy to question all she has done for Molly, and whether any one person can truly change the fate of another.

A tense and tender examination of the blurred lines between protection and control, The Painter's Daughters is a searing portrait of the real girls behind the canvas. Emily Howes's debut is a stunning exploration of devotion, control, and individuality; it is a love song to sisterhood, to the many hues of life, and to being looked at but never really seen.

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BookBrowse Review


Peggy and Molly Gainsborough are sisters and best friends, living an idyllic life in 18th-century Ipswich where they explore the countryside with their artist father. But Molly isn't well—she has episodes of confusion and dissociation, forgetting where she is or what she's doing. The Painter's Daughters follows Peggy's journey to adulthood as she struggles with her fear for and anger at her sister, as well as finding her place in the world. Howes' debut is hard to put down once you've started, but unsurprisingly emotionally heavy, given the difficult issues it grapples with. I cannot recommend it enough for readers looking for a nuanced, character-driven story...continued

Full Review Members Only (567 words)

(Reviewed by Katharine Blatchford).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
As children, Peggy and Molly, daughters of English painter Thomas Gainsborough, are inseparable, cavorting through fields and spying on their father's work. Although Peggy is the younger of the girls, she instinctively knows she must look after Molly, who is prone to spells of confusion. When the family moves to Bath to improve their station, the demands of polite society make it harder to conceal Molly's condition. Meanwhile, each of the young women catches the eye of a man who, unbeknownst to them, courts them both, causing a rift that could destroy their bond. A dual storyline delves into their family's history and involves fascinating speculation about the possible origins of Molly's illness.

Daily Telegraph
A superb debut ... a deft portrait of a family beset by madness, self-delusion and artistic temperament, a celebration of childhood innocence and a reminder of how fleeting it is ... hugely impressive ... a novel that heroically refuses to simplify anything ... the pages fly by so readably that it's only thinking about the book later – or reviewing it – that you realise quite how rich it is ... We learn a lot of fascinating stuff about Gainsborough without feeling remotely lectured. Every place and time in which the novel touches down feels thoroughly imagined ... beautifully effective ... an explosively ironic twist ... a wonderfully accomplished debut

The vibrant narrative leaves little to the imagination as Howes delves beneath the surface of Gainsborough's portraits to discover stories and incidents that are infinitely less poised and lacking in restraint than their painted representations.

The Daily Mail
Sibling bonds, arts and artifice, mental illness and marriage twine together in a story that was inspired by Gainsborough's portrait of his daughters, Peggy and Molly. Plunged into Bath polite society, their closeness is thrown into confusion as Peggy falls in love and Molly's illness threatens incarceration in an asylum."

The Mail on Sunday
Telling of hidden parentage, suffocating social mores and the humiliation of 'madness', The Painter's Daughters is a densely packed, glittering novel, with as much detail and intrigue as one of Gainsborough's own canvases.

The narrative glue is the complicated relationship between Molly and Peggy, a bond dominated by the specter of mental illness and what its discovery could do to the family's social standing and livelihood. Howes' debut is a work of absorbing biographical fiction exploring love, self-sacrifice, and codependency.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Howes delivers an immersive dive into the lives of Gainsborough's daughters but also provides an intriguing backstory about his wife's purported ancestry…. A thoughtful view of the real lives behind the pretty pictures.

Publishers Weekly
[An] intricate and vibrant debut…Howes excels in her depiction of truth and rumors. Readers will want to linger in this singular world.

Author Blurb Emma Stonex, author of The Lamplighters
A beautifully written, impressively researched novel about sisterly love, art and sacrifice, The Painter's Daughters is historical fiction at its finest. Both entertaining and enlightening, it swept me along in its galloping pace while teaching me about a world I never knew. Howes is a talent to be reckoned with. Wonderful.

Author Blurb Hilary Mantel
The Painter's Daughters is beautifully written…I raced through it. Howes's research is filtered through contemporary consciousness and deployed with skill. It's a polished performance.

Author Blurb Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring
Beautifully written, moving and skillfully handled, The Painter's Daughters is as exquisitely and tenderly rendered as a Gainsborough painting.

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Beyond the Book

Thomas Gainsborough

landscape oil painting featuring trees and cloudy sky by Thomas GainsboroughEmily Howes' enthralling debut novel, The Painter's Daughters, features a fictionalized version of the lives of Molly and Peggy Gainsborough. Their father, Thomas Gainsborough, was one of the most influential British painters of the 18th century.

Gainsborough, born in 1727, was the youngest of John and Mary Gainsborough's nine children. His father was a wool manufacturer in Sudbury, Suffolk. He lived there until the age of 13, when he was sent to London to study under Hubert-François Gravelot, a French painter and illustrator. From him, Gainsborough gained exposure to the Rococo style, which heavily influenced his work. In 1746, he married Margaret Burr, and they went on to have the two daughters who are the main characters of the ...

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