When an elegant French antiques dealer dies in her adopted hometown of New York City, her son, Misha, is astonished to learn that she owned a priceless, uncataloged Titian known as The Gypsy Madonna. Misha wonders how she could have kept such a secret from him, bonded inseparably as they were since his childhood in German-occupied France. Now with the discovery of the Titian masterpiece and the loss of his mother, he must at last journey back to Bordeaux to uncover the truth about The Gypsy Madonna -- and himself.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||4 MB|
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It all began on a snowy January day. January is bleak in New York. The trees are bare, the festivities over, the Christmas tree lights taken down for another year. The wind that races down the streets is edged with ice. I walked briskly with my hands in my coat pockets. Head down, eyes to the ground, lost in thought: nothing particular, just the business of the day. I tried not to think of my mother. I am an avoider. If something gives me pain I don't think about it. If I don't think about it, it isn't happening. If I can't see it, it isn't there, right? My mother had been dead a week. The funeral was over. Only the journalists pestered like flies, determined to find out why an uncatalogued, unknown Titian of such importance had only now come to light. Didn't they understand that I knew as little as they did? If they were grappling in the dark, I was floundering in space.
I reached my office. A redbrick building in the West Village with an antique shop on the ground floor. Zebedee Hapstein, the eccentric clockmaker, toiled against a discordant orchestra of ticking in his workshop next door. I fumbled in my pocket for the key. My fingers were numb. I had forgotten to wear gloves. For a moment I looked at my reflection in the glass. The haunted face of a man old beyond his years stared grimly back at me. I shook off my grief and walked inside, brushing the snow from my shoulders. Stanley wasn't in yet, nor was Esther who answered the shop telephone and cleaned the place. With leaden feet I climbed the stairs. The building was dim and smelled of old wood and furniture polish. I opened the door to my office and stepped inside. There, sitting quietly on a chair, was a tramp.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Angrily, I demanded to know what he was doing there and how he had got in. The window was closed and the front door had been locked. For an instant I was afraid. Then he turned to me, his mouth curling into a half smile. I was at once struck by the extraordinary color of his eyes that shone out from his cracked and bearded face, like aquamarine set in rock. I had a sudden sense of déjà vu but it was gone as quickly as it had come. He wore a felt hat and sat hunched in a heavy coat. I noticed his shoes were dirty and scuffed with a hole wearing through at one toe. He looked me up and down appraisingly and I felt my fury mount at his impertinence.
"You've grown into a fine young man," he mused, nodding appreciatively. I frowned at him, not knowing how to respond. "You don't know who I am?" he asked and, behind his smile, I noticed a shadow of sorrow.
"Of course I don't. I think you should leave," I replied.
He nodded and shrugged. "Hell, there's no reason why you should remember. I hoped ... Well, what does it matter? Do you mind if I have a smoke? It's mighty cold out there." His accent was southern and there was something about it that caused my skin to goose-bump.
Before I could refuse his request he pulled out a Gauloise and struck a match to light it. The sudden smell of smoke sent my head into a spin. There was no way I could avoid the sudden arousal of memory. I gave him a long stare before dismissing the idea as preposterous. I took off my coat and hung it on the back of the door to hide my face and play for time, then sat down at my desk. The old man relaxed as he inhaled but he never took his eyes off me. Not for a moment.
"Who are you?" I asked, bracing myself for the answer. It can't be, I thought. Not after all this time. I didn't want it to be, not like this, not smelling of stale tobacco and sweat. He smiled, blowing the smoke out of the side of his mouth.
"Does the name Jack Magellan mean anything to you?"
I hesitated, my mouth dry.
He raised a feathery eyebrow and leaned across the desk. "Then perhaps the name Coyote might be more familiar, Junior?"
I felt my jaw loosen and fall. I searched his features for the man who had once held my love in the palm of his hand, but saw only a dark beard fringed with gray and deep crevices in thick, weatherbeaten skin. There was no evidence of his youth or his magic. The handsome American who had promised us the world had died long ago. Surely he had died; why else would he not have come back?
"What do you want?"
"I read about your mother in the papers. I came to see her."
"She's dead," I said brutally, watching for his reaction. I wanted to hurt him. I hoped he'd be sorry. I owed him nothing -- he owed me an explanation and thirty years. I was glad to see his eyes fill with tears and sink into his head with sadness. He stared at me, horrified. I watched him watching me. I didn't endeavor to ignore his emotion. I simply left him like a fish struggling on the beach, gasping for air.
"Dead," he said finally, and his voice cracked. "When?"
"Last week," he repeated, shaking his head. "If only..."
He inhaled and the smoke that he blew out enveloped me once again in a miasma of memory. I fought it off with a scowl and turned away. In my mind's eye I saw long, green rows of vines, cypress trees, and the sun-drenched, sandy stone of those château walls that had once been my home. The pale blue shutters were open, the scents of pine and jasmine blew in on the breeze, and somewhere, at the very back of my thoughts, I heard a voice singing "Streets of Laredo."
"Your mother was a unique woman," he said sadly. "I wish I had seen her before she died."
I wanted to tell him that she had long clung to the hope that he would one day return. That, in the three decades since he had left, she had never doubted him. Only finally, when she reached the end of the road, had she resigned herself to the truth -- that he was never coming back. I wanted to shout at him and haul him off the ground by the collar of his coat. But I did not. I remained calm. I simply stared back at him, my face devoid of expression.
"How did you find me?" I asked.
"I read about the Titian," he replied. Ah, the Titian, I thought. That's what he's after. He stubbed out his cigarette and chuckled. "I see she gave it to the city."
"What's it to you?"
He shrugged. "Worth a fortune that painting."
"So that's why you're here. Money."
Once again he leaned forward and fixed me with those hypnotic blue eyes of his. "I'm not coming asking for money. I'm not looking for anything." His voice was gruff with indignation. "In fact, I'm an old fool. There's nothing left for me here."
"Then why did you come?"
Now he smiled, revealing teeth blackened with decay. I felt uneasy, however, because his smile was more like the grimace of a man in pain. "I'm chasing a rainbow, Junior, that's what it is. That's what it's always been, a rainbow. But you wouldn't understand."
From the window I watched him limp down the street, his shoulders hunched against the cold, his hat pulled low over his head. I scratched my chin and felt bristles against my fingers. For a moment I was sure I heard him singing, his voice carried on the wind: "As I walked out on the streets of Laredo."
It was all too much. I grabbed my coat and hurried down the stairs. As I reached the door, it opened and Stanley walked in. He looked surprised to see me. "I'm going out," I said and left without further explanation.
I ran into the street. The snow was now falling thick and heavy. I set off along the trail his footprints had made. I didn't know what I was going to say to him when I caught up with him. But I did know why my anger had been overridden by something almost visceral. You see, it's hard to explain, but he had given me a gift, a very special gift. A gift no one else could give me, not even my mother. And, in spite of all the pain he brought, ours was a bond that could never break.
I was able to follow his footprints for a while, but soon the track was lost among the millions of faceless inhabitants of New York. I felt a sudden ache deep within my soul, a regret for something lost. I scanned the pavements, searching for the old man with the limp, but my heart yearned for someone different. He had been handsome, with sandy hair and piercing blue eyes, the color of a tropical sea. When he smiled those eyes had twinkled with mischief, extending into long white crows'-feet accentuated against the weathered brown of his skin. His mouth had turned up at the corners, even when he was solemn, as if a smile was his natural expression and it cost him to be serious. He bounced when he walked, his chin high, his shoulders square, exuding a wild and raffish charm powerful enough to soften the heart of the most determined cynic. That was the Coyote I knew. Not this old, malodorous vagabond who'd come like a vulture to peck at the remains of the woman who had loved him.
I stared bleakly into the snow, then turned and walked back. My footprints had almost disappeared. And his? They had gone too. It was as if he had never existed.
Copyright © 2006 by Santa Montefiore
Reading Group Guide
"I expected to find the provenance of the Titian. I never expected to find myself."
On her deathbed, Mischa Fontaine's French mother, Anouk, reveals a momentous secret to her son. For more than three decades she has been in possession of an uncatalogued Titian painting known as The Gypsy Madonna, a priceless work that she is donating to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their adopted home of New York City.
Anouk's revelation sends Mischa on a journey into the past. Shadowed by memory, he recalls his childhood in a war-torn village in Bordeaux, the disappearance of his German father, the townspeople whose hatred of him and his mother escalated into a violent encounter that rendered him mute, and the sprawling château where Anouk worked as a hotel maid. He also remembers Coyote Magellan, an enigmatic American guest at the château, who fell in love with Anouk and freed Mischa from his silence. The three journeyed to Coyote's home in America, where Anouk and Mischa began an enchanted new life...until the day Coyote mysteriously vanished.
Hoping to determine the provenance of The Gypsy Madonna, Mischa returns to Bordeaux in search of answers. Here he uncovers his mother's closely guarded secrets, learns precious details about the two fathers who abandoned him, and rediscovers the one person who can free him from a cynical and lonely life.
QUESTIONS & TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In the Prologue, Mischa reveals that he is angry with his mother for never having told him about her Titian. Why does Anouk not share this secret-as well as several other important aspects about her past-with Mischa, especially in light of their close relationship? Does Mischa eventually come to understand what drove his mother to keep these secrets? Why do you think Anouk held on to The Gypsy Madonna for so many years?
2. Discuss the novel's narrative structure, which shifts between the present and the past. How does this technique allow the author to heighten the suspense in the story? In what ways does it offer further insight into the characters, Mischa in particular?
3. Why do the townspeople of Maurilliac, including those at the château, treat Anouk and Mischa with such disdain? Is their behavior justified in any way? Why does Anouk insist on attending Mass even though it means enduring the hostility of the villagers and Père Abel-Louis?
4. Why does Coyote's presence in Maurilliac and his public support of Anouk and Mischa change their standing in the town? What is it about Coyote that has such a powerful effect on the people around him? What does Mischa derive from his relationship with Coyote?
5. "It was a few moments before I realized that the angelic voice was my own," recalls Mischa about once again being able to speak, an occurrence he attributes to Coyote's "magic." Why does Mischa get his voice back? How does he overcome the psychological factors that have rendered him mute for more than four years? What part does Coyote play in bringing this about?
6. How does the behavior of the townspeople change once Mischa is able to speak? Why are they afraid of him, and how does Mischa use this fear to his advantage?
7. Compare Anouk's and Mischa's lives in Maurilliac to how they are received and treated in Jupiter, New Jersey. Even as a six-year-old child, does Mischa understand that he has been given a chance to start a new life?
8. Why does Coyote not reveal his whereabouts to Anouk and Mischa after he disappears? How does his disappearance compare to Dieter Schulz's or other traumatic events such as their near murder in the Maurilliac town square? What is the significance of Anouk's continuing to set a place for Coyote at the dinner table?
9. "I took my mother's love for granted, but I measured myself against his," says Mischa. Why is his self-image so intertwined with his love for and reverence of Coyote?
10. What is your overall impression of Coyote? Did your opinion change as the story progressed and more details about his character were revealed? Once he learns more details, does Mischa's opinion of Coyote ultimately change? Why or why not?
11. Why is Mischa unable (or unwilling) to sustain a committed romantic relationship? Why does it take him decades to realize that Claudine is the woman he loves? When Mischa arrives at Claudine's house to collect her before leaving Maurilliac, he recalls, "I felt physically powerful but almost crippled with fear. I couldn't tolerate life without her." Are Mischa's feelings for Claudine based on more than love? How so?
12. What motivates Mischa to seek out Père Abel-Louis when he returns to Maurilliac? Is it a desire for revenge or something else? What does Mischa take away from the encounter?
13. "I owed him nothing-he owed me an explanation and thirty years," says Mischa about Coyote's unexpected visit to his New York City office. Why does Mischa turn Coyote away without allowing him to explain where he has been for thirty years?
14. Mischa's quest to uncover the provenance of The Gypsy Madonna takes him on a journey into the past and leads him back to Maurilliac, where he relives his childhood and delves into his mother's past. How does the power of memory play out in the novel, especially for Mischa?
15. Strolling the streets of Maurilliac on his return, Mischa realizes that he is "a different person now, at least on the outside." How does Mischa view the town and its inhabitants differently now that he is seeing them through the eyes of an adult? In what ways have both Mischa and the town not changed?
16. Discuss the novel's ending. Do you suppose Coyote comes back to visit Mischa? What is the significance of Coyote sending Mischa his beloved guitar?