Monday, November 12, 2012

Historical Fiction: "The Art Forger" by B. A. Shapiro

Continuing the recent trend in art-themed novels is B. A. Shapiro's "The Art Forger," published by Algonquin Books. Shapiro's seventh book, this story centers around starving artist Claire Roth. Black-balled from the Boston art community because of a scandal three years ago, Claire makes  (very) modest living copying great works of art for an online reproduction company. When an old acquaintance from her pre-scandal days approaches her about copying a painting with questionable origins, Claire has to make a choice between her career and her personal integrity.

But wait, don't roll your eyes and walk away from this tired Right versus Wrong setup quite yet. Claire obviously chooses the "wrong" thing to do, otherwise there wouldn't be a story. But the Faustian (and, frankly, underwhelming) premise leads the reader on a merry chase through art history, forgers past and present, the finer legal points of art, and the established authority of "art experts." What looks like it might be a boring "learn your lesson" novel at the beginning is actually a lot more complicated, and rewarding, than it first appears.

In order to make all of these details and story lines fit together, though, there was some format finesse involved. Shapiro effectively intertwines three (connected) stories from three different time periods: the present, three years ago (the scandal), and in the late 1800's when Degas was still alive and painting. Not only are these distinct times clearly labeled at the beginning of chapters, they're done in different fonts and formats too, which is a nice touch.

The research that went into historical art forgers, painting techniques, nomenclature and practices featured in the novel is impressive. I learned a lot about different types of painting, different approaches to it and the mechanics of it as well, just by reading the details that were added to the text and story line. However, I'm sorry to say that this attention to detail seemed to backfire on occasion: when you spend so much time writing details into your text, your readers pay them more attention, so when you make a minor mistake (say, for example, he requirement of being fingerprinted to volunteer at a juvenile detention center) it jumps out.

Additionally, while the story's play was interesting, I'm sorry to say that the main character, in fact, was not. Aside from the tired cliche of the starving artist character, which is drenched in pained, labor-of-love desperation to not sell out, Claire Roth was one of those women who you just want to shake until their teeth rattle, then wash your hands of them because no matter how many mistakes they've made in the past, they just don't seem to have learned anything. You kind of start to think that maybe they actually deserve what they get when, somehow, their misguided decisions in love and life just keep turning out to be - well, bad.

I'd recommend this book to "mystery lite" lovers, as it's high on the suspense and discovery scales but lacks the grit of a lot of modern crime novels. It's also good for a book club or reading group, which is where I picked it up, because it seems like everyone can find something they enjoyed and something that irritated them about the story, and it's a different combination thereof for almost every individual. Look for "The Art Forger" now in the local bookstore of your choice.

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