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The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng: A Novel

Orton, Thomas

23 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 1582431256 / ISBN 13: 9781582431253
Published by Counterpoint, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., 2001
Condition: Very Good Soft cover
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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng: A ...

Publisher: Counterpoint, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: Trade Paperback

Book Condition: Very Good

Dust Jacket Condition: No Jacket (As Issued)

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: First Edition

About this title


A stunning first novel-morally refined, historically accurate, and ripe with mystery and intrigue Disgraced photo dealer and art historian Robert Armour stumbles upon the long-lost glass negatives of Chinese-American photographer Wilfred Eng. The plates, nudes of a beautiful young woman taken in 1874, bring certainty to the rumor of an interracial affair between Eng and Ellen McFarland, wife of the business tycoon who was Eng's patron. Their difficult affair becomes an obsession for Armour and the backdrop for the novel as he struggles for professional redemption and love.

"A deeply researched, minutely fascinating tale. . .[It] reminded me of Gide's The Counterfeiters. . .Orton is a natural observer, as articulate as he is alert." -Paul West, Bookforum

"Without any hint of overreaching, this remarkably confident debut novel drops the weighty old themes of art, love, and ethics into a brittle new setting with the aplomb of a fashion-world trendsetter mounting antique diamonds in plastic." -Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

"Echoes both Gaddis's The Recognitions and Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. . . ;An unusual and beguiling debut performance." -Kirkus Reviews


The protagonist of Thomas Orton's debut novel is running out of second chances. Once the respected owner of an exclusive photo gallery in San Francisco, Robert Armour ruined his career when he sold "newly discovered" Edward Weston erotica that turned out to be fakes. Now he's started a new life for himself in Seattle, writing articles and acting as agent in the occasional photo sale. Though his work life has taken a nosedive, Robert has found personal happiness with Diane Mays and her 8-year-old son, Budge. Then one day Judith Lund, an artist wannabe with more money than talent, asks him to evaluate four glass negatives she unearthed in the basement of an apartment building she owns, and his life is turned unexpectedly upside down. The plates turn out to be self-portraits of the famous 19th-century Chinese American landscape photographer Wilfred Eng. What's more, these four are not the only ones. Down in the basement, Robert discovers more negatives--nude portraits of a beautiful young Caucasian woman who could only be Ellen McFarland, wife of Eng's patron, and rumored to be his mistress. Suddenly, Robert has the means of salvaging his career in his hands--if he's willing to risk losing everything, including Diane, to play a dirty game:

Judith, having heard me kick her door and shout when I'd come back up from the basement, would have assumed I was after her to sign my check. Later, if she confronted me about the missing broken plate, I could claim I'd never seen it, that it was rather a hunch and some subsequent research that had led me to believe the plates were Eng's. She couldn't prove otherwise.... Everything about this plan was workable except for Diane. Eventually I'd have to tell her what I'd done, though just now I didn't like to imagine what she would think.
Thomas Orton punctuates his hero's perilous descent with passages from Wilfred Eng's writings, as well as from Ellen McFarland's diaries detailing her passionate affair with, and eventual betrayal by, Eng. As Robert's life unravels, he reluctantly recognizes certain parallels between his own actions and those of the unhappy photographer--but will he be granted yet another chance to make things right this time? Orton has crafted a tale that is part love story, part thriller, and wholly engrossing. --Alix Wilber

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