Some authors of historical novels dip into a period simply to wrap themselves in atmosphere while others step fully into a period and have a good look around. Nina Siegal, in her debut novel, The Anatomy Lesson, doesn’t settle for mere atmosphere but looks closely at a single day in 1632, the day Dr. Nicolaes Tulp gave an anatomy demonstration to the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, an event memorialized in an early group portrait by Rembrandt.
Siegal grew up with Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (a copy hung in her father’s office), and when she was in graduate school, she found herself studying it. In the novel’s Author’s Note, Siegal tells us that one day, while contemplating the painting—and the body at its center—she realized “Someone had cared for that man. . . . That someone was a woman. I named her Flora. And that’s where my story began.” But while Flora is fictitious, most of the other primary characters are real: Rembrandt; Dr. Tulp; Aris, whose body is the painting’s centerpiece; Jan Fetchet, the aptly named procurer of corpses and curios; and Rene Descartes, who attended Dr. Tulp’s demonstration. The novel shifts from character to character (including a fictional modern-day art restorer working on the painting), unfolding the story of Aris’s death, Dr. Tulp’s lecture, and how Rembrandt may have decided on his final image.
The Anatomy Lesson brims with period detail about guilds and courts, the class system and the economy, theories about art and biology, and religious beliefs. Siegal clearly researched exhaustively to build this book, but I wished she’d put equally energy into characterization; some of the voices sound more authentic than others, and the overall tone is too dispassionate. That said, The Anatomy Lesson is a fascinating examination of a moment in history when lives intersected and a masterpiece was born.
P.S. For background on The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, visit: http://www.rembrandthuis.nl/en/rembrandt/belangrijkste-werken/de-anatomische-les-van-dr-nicolaes-tulp