Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 10/23/2012
The curse of reading mostly for information makes me overlook the gratification that comes from browsing a good novel. Why not read for pleasure while I learn something new? Unless I can find a way to combine the two objectives, I can never quite get to the novels lying in my reading pile.
A concerted effort to read more fiction and a curiosity about art world crimes prompted me to review The Art Forger: A Novel by B.A. Shapiro. Plus, I’m susceptible to good book publicity.
The title promises a factual backstory of art history, theft and forgery. The book delivers an engrossing who-done-it with a credible cast of artists, curators, art thieves and FBI agents caught up in the drama of a stolen Degas.
Shapiro, the author of six novels, four screenplays and the nonfiction book, The Big Squeeze, writes a gripping plot-twister honed from research in The Art Forger. The story posits what it would be like to possess a stolen Degas, how someone might resist returning a priceless painting to its rightful owners and what might happen if the painting turned out to be a forgery.
In the novel, gallery owner Aiden Markel offers blackballed artist Claire Roth $50,000 with the guarantee of a one-woman art show if she agrees to forge Degas’ After the Bath, one of thirteen priceless paintings stolen in an unsolved art museum heist in 1990.
This painting torn from a wall in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is mysteriously acquired by Markel, who hopes to rescue it from the black market where priceless art is exploited as collateral for weapons or drugs. Claire’s intuition sends her searching for evidence that the stolen Degas Markel brings to her might be a forgery.
Shapiro captures a fabulous art scene among her depictions of the Gardner Museum as well as Newbury Street and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The main character’s research on the topic of forgery provides an interesting how-to that actual experts utilize in revealing the difference between a fake and an original piece of art. And, the speculative letters of wealthy art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner serve as exposition for the fabricated story of a Degas forgery.
Other than some weird details cropping up the landscape of the book (hydrangeas are for old ladies and a neon Budweiser sign that keeps hipsters from a local bar), Shapiro tells the story well with some terrific twists and turns. Did Belle Gardner pose nude for Degas and was she blackmailed by a forger?
Shapiro takes more time than she needs revealing some of the characters in depth, particularly Claire’s emotional temperament as an artist. She has a plausible conversation with a curator about acclaimed artist Isaac Cullion (good name for a backstabber) who has reaped the rewards of her work while she remains anonymous. Claire wrestles with how to get the knife out of her back, so she spills the secret of her former art teacher to the curator. Naively expecting Cullion to come clean, she doesn’t rage like a woman scorned fast enough and you’re left anxious for this dearie to grow a set of nails.
Shapiro only begins to redeem Claire of her bad career choice as things get real and the action winds up.
“I push myself harder and harder, paint faster and faster, hoping that by finishing the painting, I’ll also be finishing off my demons. That I’ll be able to climb out of this vortex and into my actual life. Then, one day it’s done. With the sweep of the brush, I sign Degas’ name, making sure to leave the somewhat too large space between the “a” and the “s.” Adrenaline surges through my body as I step back and admire my handiwork.”
A possible film version in the works? Can we begin speculating who might be cast as Claire? Aiden? How about the tetchy curator sidekick Rik, who feigns to dread his participation in uncovering clues?
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro is a worthwhile read for the curious art history aficionado and glutton for a good page turner.
Category: Fiction, Art History