The Talented Miss Farwell by Emily Gray Tedrowe
Published by Custom House
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Suspense
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Sometimes, despite being gifted, life doesn’t work out the way you want. For Rebecca Farwell her father’s ineptitude in business and later, a stroke, mean that despite her talent with numbers college is not an option. Instead, she keeps their farm equipment company in Pierson, Illinois solvent and even pays off the farm when her father dies. All this before she turns 18. But what to do now? The Talented Miss Farwell is a complicated, but intriguing look at the lengths Becky will go to to spin a new life for herself stuck in her hometown.
After high school Becky needs a job. She has a strong accounting background from the family business so is hired as a bookkeeper by the town government. Her enthusiasm and love for her town, combined with her aptitude, makes her assistant town comptroller by the time she’s 19 and comptroller when she’s 23. It also gives her access to the sometimes shady world of adults and politics.
Soon after Becky realizes she have the life she wants she decides to find an Activity; something that fills her with passion. At an estate sale she’s drawn to a small painting, so much so that she buys it. From there, she begins buying art magazines and studying the art world. Her day is still filled with columns of numbers, but her free time is spent following art auctions and learning the inner workings of this unfamiliar world.
It isn’t long before Becky decides to combine her two loves—numbers and art. Her keen mind and attention to detail has uncovered the weaknesses in Pierson’s finances. She begins manipulating data to shunt small sums of money to shell accounts, using that money to buy art which she sells for a profit, and returns the funds to the town, keeping the profit. As her responsibilities at the town increase so does her obsession. She visits Chicago, becomes the protégé of an art buyer, calls herself Reba, and begins to move in the kind of circles she thought were impossible. The 80s segues into the 90s and Miss Farwell now has a double life, reaching new heights all the way to NYC.
On the one hand, this is a straightforward novel about obsession and greed, but author Emily Tedrowe goes far beneath the surface to create a multi-layered portrait in Miss Farwell. Becky’s despair over her lot in life is palpable. It’s not hard to recognize the pain she feels when she’s snubbed by former classmates, home on vacation from college. She is bright, she is capable, she has great ideas to help the town she loves. The slipping of her values is an insidious one that resists easy judgment. As she creates a persona of wealth, knowledge, and poise she’s only in her mid-20s and she’s still managing to serve Pierson well. Even as both her machinations and the stakes increase Tedrowe courts the reader’s sympathy. That she does so with wry humor only enhances the novel’s progression.
Depending on your age, the title, The Talented Miss Farwell may sound somewhat familiar. That’s because in 1999 there was a movie called The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon. It was based on an even more popular book with the same title from the 1950s. Why would a publisher consciously mimic an existing work’s title? It smacks of outright laziness. There was no other equally fitting, interesting title they could use? Say, The Art of Miss Farwell? It also diminishes Tedrowe’s work. It would be sly if her novel was a sequel to Mr. Ripley, but it’s not. It has only the most tenuous thematic link—people pretending to be someone they’re not.
Regardless of why this novel was given this title, it almost kept me from reading the book. I’m glad I went ahead. Becky’s journey from plucky financial whiz to polished art purveyor is a fun one. The most damning criticism I can make of a book is not caring enough about a character to keep reading. Miss Farwell has its issues, but I had to know what happens in this clever and interesting psychological profile of what people will do to paint themselves in the best light.
Other great books about the world of art: The Art Forger, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Tsar of Love and Techno.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Custom House in exchange for an honest review.*