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Gene Openshaw
Michelangelo at Midlife
“Michelangelo at Midlife” is a traveler’s quest for Michelangelo’s most troubled work of art: the notorious Tomb of Pope Julius II. His artistic ambitions crumbling as fast as his marriage, Sam careens through Europe—from Florence to Paris, Venice to Amsterdam—seeking inspiration in the great Michelangelo who, for all his success, struggled to complete the colossal Tomb. Sam teams up with Nikki, an intriguing Italian woman who opens his eyes to the deeper meaning of the Tomb. She explains how Michelangelo began with over-the-top ambitions, but—as those plans got derailed—he sank into a deep depression… a “midlife crisis.” Their three paths—Michelangelo, Sam, and Nikki—converge in Rome. Can they each find a way to pull their messy lives together and realize their youthful dreams?
Openshaw’s surprising novel of art, aging, and what life’s all about is three books in one. There is the awed but irreverent quest of protagonist Sam, an artist facing a troubled marriage and a dearth of inspiration, moved to undertake a “kind of crazy spiritual quest”: to trace the construction of Michaelangelo’s Tomb of Pope Julius II, perhaps the great artist’s greatest challenge, intended to be “A work of art on a scale that hadn’t been attempted in a thousand years.” Sam’s friend Burke links Michelangelo’s mid-life crisis to Sam’s own malaise. “Some men get a red sports car and a trophy wife,” Burke says. “Michelangelo built a Tomb.” As Sam digs into what went wrong half a millennia ago, Openshaw offers an in-depth history of Michelangelo’s life and career, plus elements of a travel guide, complete with photos, illustrations and informative maps and cartoons, documenting real journeys—and the story of the tomb itself, a grand project that never worked out like Michelangelo had envisioned.

Openshaw is a seasoned tour guide and veteran travel-television show writer, and his expertise in Italy, art, and Michelangelo in particular shines on nearly each page. Meanwhile, Sam’s sandwich-generation troubles—painful divorce; trying to help his aging parents; maintaining a relationship with his young daughter—has him reeling. His admission, in a seedy Bologna hotel, that he has “no home” suggests Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, while accomplished passages of travel writing bring Italy to touching life.

Sam finds some relief in spirited carousing and a hopeful romance, and his travails are wittily juxtaposed against those of his idol, Michelangelo, though at times the balance between the novel’s three modes favors the informative, as Openshaw digs deeply into Renaissance sculpture, patronage, politics and more, considering theories of why the tomb became something of a footnote. Still, Openshaw’s depiction of Michelangelo as a human being with faults and frailties is fascinating. Michelangelo at Midlife is like a trip to Italy, edifying, informative, and unpredictable.

Takeaway: Surprising novel of art, history, and mid-life crises, including Michelangelo’s.

Comparable Titles: Stephanie Storey’s Oil and Marble, Theresa Maggio’s Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-


A delightful combination of art history and light drama...

The author deftly relates two parallel tales: Sam’s struggle to fix his battered life and the extraordinary feat of constructing Michelangelo’s “ridiculously audacious Tomb,” which took 40 terrible years to complete. The thematic connection between the two storylines, conveyed with impressive emotional poignancy, is the crisis of middle age: the mortal battle against irrepressible time. “The arrow of Time was streaking like a rocket across the sky, leaving a vapor trail. I could see the entire arc of a human life in a single glance, in stark relief against the backdrop of non-existence. And I could see exactly where I was on that arc.”

Despite the gravity of Sam’s troubles, Openshaw largely keeps this a lighthearted tale… told with intelligence… filled with humor and tinged with an ironic acknowledgement of the travails of life. The novel is just as much about Michelangelo, whose history is expertly detailed, and includes gorgeous color photography of Italy and its artistic treasures.

 This is an entertaining treat, especially for art lovers and wanderlust-afflicted travelers looking for a breezy read. -- Kirkus Reviews