Saturday, April 13, 2013

B. A. Shapiro leads us into art theft and forgery in this thriller.

Art thrillers are in a class of their own, and this is a good one.  In The Art Forger (368 pages, Algonquin Books, $23.95), we meet Claire Roth, a frustrated Boston artist who supports herself by doing truly wonderful copies of great paintings, for which folks pay enough to her employer that she can keep a roof over her head and a meal or two on the table every day. 

Most of the time she nurses a loss and a grievance, which are so intertwined that it is almost maddening.  Her former lover, also a painter, took credit for a work that she created, and when it became the toast of the art world, he refused to even speak to her.  When she tried to claim her rightful place, she was rebuffed and before she could even challenge this guy, he took his own life and left her with guilt and blame galore.

So she is surprised when she is approached by a handsome and suave gallery owner, Aiden Markel, who has a proposition.  Her reproduction specialty is Edgar Degas, and Aiden asks her to make a copy of one of the great Degas paintings that was stolen some years before from the Isabelle Stuart Gardner Museum.  He says that he has gained access to the painting, and he wants to swap her copy for the real one with his buyer, and then return the original to the Museum.  He offers her a tidy sum and a show in his gallery.  She can not talk herself into refusing.

As the novel proceeds, we watch her carefully as she sets about creating this copy, and all the steps of recreation are outlined carefully.   It is a fascinating process, but in the middle of it, Claire begins to think that the original that she is copying from is not really original at all.

Be that as it may, she proceeds with her project, even as she explores possible alternative outcomes; and while doing so, she also starts to get her own painting back on track.

Everything explodes before she gets to have the show she was anticipating, but her hard work pays off in the end.  I won’t ruin the thrill of the ending, but I can say that it is very satisfying.

If you like thinking about French art of the late-nineteenth century or have a thing for the Gardner Museum, this novel is for you.  If you don’t know about those things, you will learn a lot about them here.

B. A. Shapiro

The Art Forger is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.