Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro

It is so rare that I read a book right when it jumps onto the New York Times Bestseller list, that I really think I should do this more often! It's nice to be on the cutting edge of literary news for once. But this is one of those books that when I heard about it, I just knew I had to read it.

Claire is an artist, and on the side she paints copies of famous paintings, mostly Impressionists, for Reproductions.com (what a brilliant idea - why is this not a real website?) After all, she needs to do that for income because she is a pariah in the art world of Boston. Three years earlier she had made a couple of dubious decisions that resulted in her being called The Great Pretender and blackballed from pretty much everything important in her field in her city. She is trying to work her way back to at least anonymity, if not respectability, when an acquaintance, the owner of one of the most powerful galleries in the city, comes to her with a proposition. He has somehow (don't ask how) gotten his hands on one of the Degas paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990, and he wants Claire to paint a copy. He plans to return the original to the museum after bilking an unscrupulous collector with the copy. This isn't quite the entree back into the art world that Claire has been waiting for, but when he backs up his significant paycheck with a promise of an art show, she doesn't feel she can turn him down. Naturally, things get complicated. Particularly when Claire notices some details in the original that are just... wrong. Is it really an original at all? If not, where is the original and why did this one hang in its place for so many decades?

One thing I found fascinating about this book is that the first two-thirds are all about the Boston art scene, about how forgeries work, about Claire's past mistakes, and about her wanting to move on. Then somehow the last third of the book morphs into a thriller with the cops and FBI and arrests and intrigue and hidden secret basements and forgeries and lies, and yet it totally works. If I had known this in advance, it probably would have been a bit of a turn-off as it's so rare that an author can pull off such a drastic change in tone and pacing successful, but Shapiro has. The shift is flawlessly pulled off and I dare anyone to try to put this book down in the last fifty pages. I couldn't. And I have the lack of sleep to prove it! And yet there are formal gowns and Degas paintings and museum openings and art, which really class the book up, and make it a thriller for the intellectual set.

A couple of super-minor but niggling critiques: her little band of friends who have not forsaken her at the bar is at least two people too large and not very important overall except for two of them. And her volunteering that she does at the local youth correctional facility doesn't factor at all in the last third of the book, in fact it's kind of dropped. If it doesn't tie into the overall story, I think it needs to go, but these are both really minor.

To this day, none of the artwork has been found, despite a $5 million reward and the statute of limitations on the theft being expired. (The painting featured in the book is fictional.) I actually wish I knew more about both the theft and the Gardner Museum. This book has really intrigued me, and I plan to visit a couple more museums this year, as my appetite for art has been whetted.

I borrowed this book from the library.


Harvee@BookDilettante said...

Art history and mystery, a good combination. A book to look out for!

Jeane said...

Sounds interesting, if a bit too much on the thriller side for me. I think I'll still take a look. There are websites where famous paintings are reproduced. But from what I gather, those who paint the copies work under rather sweatshop-like conditions.