Siegal wrote The Anatomy Lesson as if this were a thesis her university wouldn’t let her defend. The book is titled after Rembrant’s work, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, painted in 1632; the main character of the book is the corpse being dissected in the painting. Compelling idea, to have the criminal in the painting be the vessel through which we enter the Dutch Golden Age, but it was a poor execution.
Wrapped up in too many central characters, the story doesn’t have a hero or anti-hero: they are random characters thrown together in chapters with unsubtle titles like “The Heart” and “The Brain.” Similarly, the plot really drags. From the dust-jacket you know that the body on the table is a criminal and you know the story is about him, the painter Rembrandt, and the people around them. Unfortunately, after a hundred pages, you aren’t much deeper. Siegal simply wanders around the canals and suburbs of Holland without a cardinal direction.
Predictable plot and clumsy characters aside, my least favorite part was the jarring addition of “conservator’s notes” between chapters. Written as if they were actual conservators notes from actual museum professionals, they were not only absurd and unbelievable, they were astonishingly boring and completely self-indulgent. What is the purpose of including entire follow-up chapters of fake research just to prove a fictional thesis you just revealed to the reader in the previous chapter?
Like an undeveloped fantasy might play out while you’re looking at a painting, The Anatomy Lesson has promise as a story, but unfortunately falls flat.