Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: The Art Forger

By Jami Deise

My favorite type of art is the written word. In close second would be those “moving pictures” – i.e. TV and movies. As far as the art that’s generally found in museums, I appreciate pretty things, but my knowledge of what’s hanging on those walls or spotlighted on pedestals is limited to “I like those dancers” and “Ohh, nice colors.” But my lack of art education didn’t keep me from thoroughly enjoying B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger. In fact, I got a bit of schooling to go along with my entertainment.

Claire Roth, an immensely talented young artist living in Boston, made a huge mistake three years ago, and she’s been paying for it ever since. Rather than showing in galleries and accepting commissions, she’s a painter with, spending her time copying the great masters. She’s very good at what she does, especially when it comes to Degas.

Enter one Aiden Markel, owner of the famous and successful Markel G. gallery. He wants to host a show for Claire… but first he has a proposition. There’s a famous Degas painting -- “After the Bath” -- that’s been missing since it and several others were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Now Markel has it – and an interested buyer willing to pay millions. Markel’s plan is for Claire to forge the painting, Markel to sell the forgery, and then return the original to the museum. After all, it’s not like the painting’s buyer can go complaining to the FBI! After some hesitation, Claire is up for the challenge. But as she prepares to create the forgery, she realizes “After the Bath” is itself a forgery. Should she tell Markel, and risk losing the hefty fee and the chance for her own show, not to mention their burgeoning romance? Or should she keep her mouth shut and reap the benefits?

Claire is not a typical women’s fiction heroine: She knows what she’s doing is wrong, but readers root for her anyway. It’s partly because of the shabby way she’s treated by the art world, and partly due to Markel’s assurance that she’s playing a role in having “After the Bath” returned to the museum. But it’s also because Claire is so intelligent and so hardworking (and she also volunteers with juvenile delinquents) that readers want her to succeed.

While the novel tells the forgery story in present day, it also flashes back in alternate chapters to three years earlier, showing exactly what Claire did to become an outcast in the art community. While Shapiro could have chosen to explain Claire’s back story in a couple of pages, by alternating past and present, she was able to create tension and suspense in places where the current story was a little too smooth. It’s this experience that directly impacts her decision about how to handle the forgery.
Shapiro mixes the roller-coaster plot with a layman’s education on painting and forgery. She takes care to explain even the simplest terms without ever sounding patronizing. The reader feels completely immersed in Claire’s world. I would imagine Bostonians would feel this way even more so, as Shapiro bases the story on a real museum and a real art heist.

Several times during the story, Claire reminds the reader that the best forgeries are still hanging in museums around the world – in fact, there’s speculation that the Mona Lisa in the L’Ouvre might be one of many copies made by someone other than Da Vinci during that time period. Beyond the question of a painting’s authenticity, though, lies a broader theme – that people see what they want to see. That’s why Claire became an outcast in the art world, and why no one before Claire ever suspected that the version of “After the Bath” that hung in the Gardner Museum until 1990 was actually a forgery. Even Claire herself realizes by the end of the book that she is guilty of the same kind of sight.

Flannery O’Connor once said, "The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode." Shapiro shows that while truth might be art’s base, that art – like people -- can just as easily tell lies. The Art Forger is a compelling women’s fiction offering, featuring a very specific plot and protagonist rarely seen in the genre. It’s the kind of book you read in one or two sittings, and then immediately pass on to your smartest friend.

Thanks to Algonquin for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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