A new view of the Art Museum

Sonya Cobb's novel tells the story of a freelance web developer and mother of two.
Sonya Cobb's novel tells the story of a freelance web developer and mother of two.

Sonya Cobb's debut novel explores the museum offices, where a new mother struggling to keep up with the times turns to pilfering treasures.

Posted: August 07, 2014

While hundreds of thousands of visitors walk through the Philadelphia Museum of Art each year, drawn in by its world-class collections or the cultural mythos of the Rocky films, Sonya Cobb's debut novel, The Objects of Her Affection, explores a part of the museum that few people ever see: the administrative offices.

A balance between writing what you know and dramatic exaggeration, Objects (by a former Philadelphia mom with a museum curator husband) tells the story of Sophie Porter, a freelance web developer and mother of two in Philly whose husband, Brian, is a curator at the Art Museum.

Having it all isn't working out for Sophie, since her pregnancies coincided with the rise of Web 2.0 - a world that includes advanced interactive components - and left her struggling to keep up. In order to make ends meet and pay for the brick rowhouse of her dreams, she resorts to filching priceless works from storage carts in Brian's department to sell on the black market.

Set in the years of the housing bubble, Sophie must also contend with the mortgage crisis and its tangle of red tape.

Factor in the tedium of changing diapers and shuttling the kids to Mommy and Me-esque music classes, and a woman could go quite mad. Especially if she's a control freak.

"I started out writing the book knowing that I wanted it to be about an almost accidental theft by someone who has access to museum objects," Cobb, 44, said. "What I really wanted to do was write a story . . . about objects forgotten that no one would notice had gone missing."

Some items Sophie steals: a 16th-century German mirror, an ornate French rococo snuff box, and a 19th-century Irish setter figurine.

"One of the things that Sophie grapples with a lot in the book is what has permanence in life and what is important in life and what is fleeting and what is ephemeral," Cobb said. "She comes to learn that history is important, whether she's thinking about the history of her house or the history of the objects in the museum."

Though not all of the objects that appear in the novel are real, Cobb researched artifacts online, looking at Christie's and Sotheby's listings. The mirror, a piece by Wenzel Jamnitzer, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collections.

Cobb's own husband, Pierre Terjanian, has served the Art Museum as the J. Medveckis Associate Curator of Arms and head of the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture Before 1700. Currently, he is a curator in the Met's Department of Arms and Armor. The family has lived in Westchester County, N.Y., for the past two years.

Being married to a curator, "I saw a lot of collections that expanded my knowledge of art history."

Among her favorite exhibits at the Art Museum is the Japanese period room, which houses the Temple of the Attainment of Happiness.

Another room, Het Scheepje (Dutch for "The Little Ship"), is significant in the novel.

Cobb, an advertising copywriter, first moved to Philly in 1993. After marrying Terjanian in 2000, they moved to California, then France. Eventually, the family, which now included a son and daughter, came back to the City of Brotherly Love in 2004, residing in the Fairmount neighborhood.

"We did a lot of the things that Sophie did in the book," Cobb said. "It was a natural place to set the story because the Philadelphia Museum of Art was right there."

Like her characters, she and Terjanian purchased a Philly rowhouse that required renovations.

"That house was meaningful to me because it was the meaning of my family life," Cobb said. "It's where [my children] grew up. I really put my heart and soul into it."

Her proximity to the museum allowed her to frequent the galleries often and absorb the atmosphere, but she did not spend much time in her husband's offices, instead fabricating details about the setup for dramatic effect. For instance, art would never be stored in offices.

And Cobb, of course, has not stolen from a museum. Nor did her rowhouse go into foreclosure.

But she, like many women, has experienced the difficulties of finding a balance between work and motherhood.

Writing a story "about someone who was going off the rails" put her own situation in perspective and helped her get in touch with the creative ambitions she had in college.

"In a lot of ways, it was a very personal story for me, the struggles that my character was going through," Cobb said. Just as Sophie's creative energy went into designing web pages, Cobb funneled hers into writing copy - and then, of course, writing this book.


AUTHOR EVENT

Sonya Cobb:

"The Objects of Her Affection"

7 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes

& Noble, Rittenhouse Square

1805 Walnut St.

Information: 215-665-0716, www.barnesandnoble.com.


zmiller@phillynews.com

215-854-2301 @Zoe_M_Miller

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