In a decade as a New York City litigator, says Heather Terrell, she never faced a moral dilemma as acute as that confronting Mara Coyne, hero of Terrell's first novel, The Chrysalis. The thriller places the young lawyer in the middle of a court battle over a 17th-century Dutch painting that went missing during World War II; the venerable auction house that owns it has retained Mara to refute an elderly Dutch woman's claim that her family still owns the artwork, which she says was stolen from her father by the Nazis who killed him.
The book was inspired by a hypothetical question a colleague posed to Terrell early in her career: Would she ever decline, on moral grounds, to represent a client who had a strong case legally? As she worked for a couple of top law firms (Skadden, Arps and Morrison & Foerster) and for Fortune 500 companies, on cases ranging from securities law to breach-of-contract, the nagging question combined with Terrell's interest in art history. She researched the law governing artwork the Nazis confiscated from Holocaust victims, and The Chrysalis began to take form.
If an insistent subtext of the novel seems to be that of a young woman deciding whether to leave a promising career -- a win for Mara will make her a partner -- it's no coincidence. Though Terrell was still a practicing attorney when she acquired a literary agent, the Upper St. Clair High School graduate finished writing The Chrysalis only after she took a break from litigating, and she and her husband left New York to return to the Pittsburgh area.
"A lot of us [lawyers] are conflicted about the work that we do," says Terrell, 38. "It was fun for me to fantasize about: What choices would [Mara] make? What choices would I make?"
Terrell and her husband, Jim, live in Edgeworth, where she writes at home with help from sitters for their 19-month-old son, Jack. On her living-room coffee table, a copy of Sarah Carr-Gomm's lay reference book Hidden Symbols in Art attests to Terrell's fascination with art history and archaeology -- subjects she studied in night classes while still practicing law.
The Chrysalis toggles between the story of the title painting's creation, in 17th-century Holland; its confiscation there three centuries later; and Mara's intrigue, complicated by skullduggery on the part of her client, who is represented by an old acquaintance with whom she has an affair. The novel's most patent concern is with who can truly own an artwork, and in what way -- legally, emotionally, culturally. But Mara is emerging from her own sort of cocoon. And when her big escape scene -- from a nefarious fellow attorney, no less -- takes place in an art museum, the book's undercurrent of career anxiety becomes all the more palpable.
The Chrysalis, published in April, garnered positive notices in Library Journal ("a gem of suspense") and Booklist (a "fascinating debut"), though Publisher's Weekly called it "disappointing" and weighed down by "repetitious explanations of the legal issues, inept pacing and awkward dialogue."
As a former litigator, Terrell says she has "a pretty thick skin" for criticism. And her publisher, Ballantine Books, seems confident about The Chrysalis, too: Copies in translation are on the shelves in 10 other countries, including the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands, Japan, Brazil and Serbia.
Terrell's contract with Ballantine was for two books; she's about finished writing the second, due out next spring and tentatively titled The Emperor's Last Voyage. The new novel's mystery -- as with The Chrysalis, largely the product of immersive historical research -- concerns a map, purportedly purloined from an archaeological site in China, documenting a Chinese explorer's pre-Columbian visit to America. Terrell's protagonist is again Mara, now a freelancer specializing in the return of stolen artwork. Her third book, says Terrell, will answer this mystery about its author: "Where do I want to lose myself next?"
- Heather Terrell went from briefs to a thriller. Photo courtesy of R. Alan Adams.