Author: B.A. Shapiro
Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Boston / Art World / Art Forger / Art Dealer / Literary Thriller / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Degas)
Publisher/Publication Date: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (10/23/2012)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I did -- I stayed up all night to finish because I had to know.
One-sentence summary: Boston artist Claire Roth, shadowed by scandal, makes her living selling reproductions of famous paintings when she's asked to forge a famous stolen painting and discovers it might actually be a forgery.
Do I like the cover?: By itself, I do -- before finishing the book, I liked it -- but upon finishing, I feel like it doesn't capture the heroine's flat at all (which I presume it is meant to evoke).
First line: I step back and scrutinize the paintings.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a zippy fast, fascinating kind of thriller of art, deceit, and forgeries!
Why did I get this book?: Boston and art, and the fact it features my favorite museum.
Review: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of my all-time favorite places on the planet. It's this funky, twisty, non-traditional art museum, where pieces crowd the walls in a random mish-mosh, without placards, placed there by Isabella herself. In 1990, thirteen pieces of art were stolen from the museum in what is now the largest unsolved art heist in history. Beautifully and chillingly, the museum has the empty frames still hanging on the walls.
Shapiro's novel merges that historical fact with her own imaginings about one of the 'missing' pieces of art (she creates a fictional Degas painting to use at the center of this story). Claire Roth is a Boston-based painter shadowed by scandal, snubbed by the art scene. Unable to sell her original art, she instead creates high quality reproductions of classic art for an online company, and while it pays her rent, the work depresses her. Aiden Markel, a well-known Boston art dealer and an acquaintance familiar with her past, appears one day with a stunning offer: make a reproduction of one of the stolen Gardner Degas paintings to earn a one-woman show at his gallery. The original painting, he promises, will be returned to the Gardner Museum as well.
Understandably torn, Claire eventually agrees but finds herself doubting the authenticity of the Degas in her studio. Her research on the painting leads her to learn a shocking amount about art forgeries, including the theory that many 'originals' gracing museum walls might be forgeries themselves.
Lest you think I'm giving away the entire book, that chunk of plot all occurs in the first 70 pages. What happens when Claire finishes the painting is where the book gets thrilling, although that isn't to say everything before it isn't enjoyable. I loved learning about the world of forgeries, the legality of reproductions,
Interspersed between Claire's story -- now and three years earlier, during her infamous scandal -- is a one-sided correspondence from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her (fictional) niece. I admit, I groaned when I hit the first letter. At the moment, I'm so over that sort of dual story line as it seems to inevitably end with the heroine being the great-great-great something of one of the historical figures. However, despite my initial irritation, the letters weren't as jarring as I anticipated and they did, in fact, offer a way to show the 'truth' of the story that wouldn't have been possible. Happily, Claire isn't the great great etc of anyone, either.
Although this is described as a literary thriller, I found it to be far less nail biting than Jennifer McMahon, for example, which is fine by me. It was still exciting and interesting. I don't think you necessarily need to be an art fan to appreciate the story -- Shapiro shares enough about how art is made and the visceral sensations associated with making art and art products to give the reader a sense of being there. A fascinating, fun read -- and a wonderful introduction to a historical figure I admire and a place I adore.
*** *** ***
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