I often find it interesting when novelists use the other fine and performing arts in their writing. Fiction about music, fiction about theater, fiction about studio arts. The last subject is a particularly appealing subject, and it seems like we could have a continuous display table featuring new novels about art. What’s interesting to me is that the market for these books runs the gamut from accessible to a bit highbrow, and even downright commercial. After all, Daniel Silva’s series of thrillers is about an art restorer, Gabriel Allon, who also happens to be a spy.
We had a nice run with Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Jane and Sharon are currently recommending The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild. And coming next year is a buzz book from Molly Prentiss called Tuesday Nights in 1980, which follows an artist, a critic, and muse through the New York scene of the early 1980s. It’s terrific, and you’ll be hearing more about it from me closer to pub date. (Editor's note: Carly just read it too and completely agrees with me.)
But right now I’ve just finished B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, her follow up to the breakout novel, The Art Forger. Like Sara Gruen and Water for Elephants, Shapiro had written books prior to her breakout novel, but none approached the success of The Art Forger. It was a great mix of art history and thriller, inspired by the mysterious robbery at Boston’s Gardner Museum in the early 1990s. It wound up being that book that appealed to both book clubs audiences and mystery readers. While a crime element can prove quite popular for reading groups, they tend to shy away from books that appear to be too genre, though sometimes that’s simply because they don’t want to jump into the middle of a series. (Photo credit Lynn Wayne)
The Muralist also looks at an interesting moment in time, the rise of the abstract expressionists. Sharpiro adds a fictional artist into the mix, Alizée Benoit, who works with actual artists Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning on WPA projects. Alizée wants to paint an abstract piece, but the WPA only wants representational art. Through Alizée, you sort of see the country’s transformation and slow acceptance. That said, this is an argument that continues to this day, with naysayers giving the old "my child could do that" critique. My advice: if your child can paint like Rothko, enroll that kid in art school.
But there's another story going on here too. Alizée Benoit has had a hard life. Her parents, both scientists, are dead, and while she is a citizen, all her family is still in France, Germany, and Belgium, desperately trying to get out to escape the Nazis. But when several try to come to the United States through Cuba on the St. Louis, they are turned away. While Alizée is fighting with authorities to consider abstract over representational art for projects, she's also desperately trying to get visas, knowing that there are people in the state department who want to keep Jews out of the United Sates. The story winds up having real-life parallels that Shapiro probably didn't imagine when she wrote The Art Forger. Coincidentally, the JCC is hosting Martin Goldsmith on December 3, 7 pm, who writes about the real life tragedy of the St. Louis in Alex's Wake.
There''s a contemporary mystery at work here as well. At a present day auction house, Benoit's grand-niece, Danielle Abrams, ponders the fate of her aunt, who disappeared during the war. While working on some new pieces, she comes across a small square attached to the back of a well-known artist's work, and it seems eerily familiar to another small work that has been passed down to her that's been said to be one of Benoit's surviving paintings. Could this new work help unlock her aunt's story?
Like most historical fiction, there's been quite a bit of research that has gone into Shapiro's story. One also has to understand that there's been quite a bit of fictional tweaking to the narrative. It would have been amazing if there were a real-life Alizée Benoit, but the fictional character is the next best thing, and brings the period to vibrant life. The Muralist is an exciting page-turner with great historical detail - it reminded me quite a bit of Tatiana De Rósnay's Sarah's Key, another story that connects the present to the past and brings a personal element to the tragedy of the Holocaust.
And dare I say it? The story has a lot of parallels today regarding Syrian refugees. I'm sure Shapiro didn't expect The Muralist to be so timely.
Don't forget, B.A. Shapiro will be at Boswell discussing The Muralist on Tuesday, December 1, 7 pm. And you can read the rest of our just out email newsletter here.
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