The Final Act of Juliette Willoughby – Love, Madness, and Art

Juliette Willoughby is an enigma. A member of a wealthy and storied British family, she fled her home and took up with an aging artist in Paris. Although Oskar Erlich was talented, he was also mercurial and abusive. He encouraged Juliette to paint, but became angry when her reputation began to eclipse his own.

That fame was surprising since Juliette’s only masterpiece was Self-Portrait as Sphinx. Unfortunately, when Juliette and Oskar perished in an apartment fire, the painting was destroyed. But was it? Two Cambridge art history students – Caroline Cooper and Patrick Lambert – set out to prove that Self-Portrait as Sphinx still exists and, if it does, could be worth millions.

Caroline and Patrick are assigned a supervisor for their first-year dissertations. Alice Long, although not on the Cambridge faculty, is well versed in surrealism, Patrick’s topic, and Juliette, Caroline’s subject. She is able to make suggestions to start them on their quest to gather information and, in Caroline’s case, not only turn in a paper, but upend the art world.

Ellery Lloyd – Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons (Photo Credit: Annick Wolfers)

Besides working as academics, Caroline and Patrick have an on-again, off-again love affair. Caroline’s history – an abusive father who killed her mother – makes it difficult for her to commit in a relationship. But as she and Patrick delve deeper into Juliette’s story, they become a true team. 

One reason Caroline connects with Juliette is through their shared family tragedies, which she begins to discover when she goes through the artist’s diaries. When Juliette was a child, she and her sister, Lucy, rowed to an island adjacent to their mansion. When the boat capsized, Juliette survived, but Lucy drowned. Because Lucy was their father’s favorite, Juliette was blamed for the death and sent to an asylum. After she was released, she fled to Paris, met Oskar, and began to paint. But she always lived in fear that her father would find her and force her to return.

Caroline is convinced that Self-Portrait as Sphinx has been hidden by the Willoughby family in their mansion. When Patrick is invited for a weekend birthday celebration for one of his classmates, Harry Willoughby, he invites Caroline along. During dinner, Caroline tells Harry’s grandmother, Violet, that she is researching Juliette’s life and hopes to find Self-Portrait as Sphinx, showing the elderly woman a photograph of the painting. Violet has a violent reaction screaming at Caroline. Later, Caroline overhears Violet tell her son, Philip, Harry’s father, that she wants the painting found and destroyed. Caroline begins to realize that Self-Portrait as Sphinx is more than a picture: it conveys a message to the Willoughby family, something the members fear will be revealed if the work is found and exhibited.

While the group is caught up in the birthday festivities, Caroline gets into a section of the mansion, the Green Room, where she believes the painting has been kept. She has no trouble identifying the Self-Portrait as Sphinx when she finds it.Covering it with her shawl, she places it in the trunk of Patrick’s car. Later, however, when she tells Patrick what she did, the situation becomes untenable. If Caroline reveals she has the painting, the Willoughby family will know she stole it from the mansion. And without provenance, they won’t be able to prove the painting is genuine.

The birthday celebration ends in tragedy when Freddie Willoughby, Harry’s cousin goes missing. Although his car is found, with blood inside and illegal drugs in the trunk, there’s no sign of Freddie. Althena, Caroline’s best friend, was Freddie’s girlfriend, although they never went public with their relationship and he mistreated her horribly. After Caroline heard a heated argument between the two, she told Athena she should dump Freddie. When he goes missing, Athena directs her anger at Caroline and their friendship suffers.

Patrick thinks he comes up with a solution to creating a legitimate trail for the painting, but his plan backfires – badly. Caroline consoles him with the idea that they still have Juliette’s diary and other papers. She is determined to find out more about who was responsible for Juliette’s death. And now that Freddie is missing and presumed dead, she believes there may be something real about the Willoughby curse.

Husband and wife team, Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons, writing as Ellery Lloyd, have crafted a sophisticated and absorbing mystery. There are many twists and turns, but nothing feels false with how the characters behave. The later action takes place in Dubai, where Collette once worked as a journalist and editor. She brings the country’s dark underbelly alive when Patrick makes a misstep and might end up spending life in prison. Makes one rethink any vacation plans for the future.

The Final Act of Juliette Willoughby
Ellery Lloyd

Top photo: Bigstock

About Charlene Giannetti (706 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.