Two weeks ago, artist Paul Emsley unveiled his new portrait of Kate Middleton. What do you think of it? Though it’s received some praise, for the most part critics have dismissed it as disappointingly bland. In a way, it’s the image’s attempt at “sweetness” that is the real problem. Emsley’s portrait doesn’t really make you want to dig deeper into Kate’s psyche, except maybe to ascertain if she has an embarrassing complex about revealing her teeth.
All this is just a long-winded way of introducing the big problem with B.A. Shapiro’s new novel The Art Forger.
It follows six months in the life of 33-year-old artist, Claire Roth. A canny Bostonian, Claire deserves everything she doesn’t have: a bigger apartment, better career prospects, a break from toxic men stomping on her potential, not to mention recognition from some of the world’s finest art museums.
She gets the chance to change all this when Aiden Markel, a mysterious and successful gallery owner, comes to her studio one day to offer her $50,000 and a one woman show at his prestigious gallery.
The only catch is that to get the show, she’s going to have to produce a forgery of an original Degas. And not just any Degas – one of the works stolen in the great Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum heist in 1990.
She is shocked and delighted to find herself confronted with the original painting After the Bath (a fictional work invented for the story), but as she works on her forgery, she begins to suspect that the work she’s copying is not the original either.
The plot unfolds on three planes – primarily, it’s the time leading up to her one-woman show. These are interspersed with episodes of three years past, where we learn about the collapse of her relationship with the late, great artist Isaac Cullion. Following their affair, his paintings sell for breathtaking sums, while Claire ends up dubbed “the Great Pretender.”
Interspersed among the modern scenes is an epistolary account about the relationship between Degas and Isabella Stewart Gardner, the great eccentric and founder of the museum.
So as you can see, it’s quite a tale.
Shapiro does a great job at keeping your interest, partly because you can tell she’s interested herself — in Degas, in forgery, in the day-to-day life of a young artist, and, above all, in Boston.
As the tale unfolds, there is a wealth of information about the fascinating history of the Gardner and its witty founder. In tying together the tales of Gardner and Claire, it tentatively addresses women’s roles in the art world, issues of taste and its development over the past hundred years, and the perils of romance in the workplace. It would be hard to read Forger and not emerge with a greater interest in the history of forgery, museums, Degas and Boston.
It all goes wrong, unfortunately, with the heroine. Like the new royal portrait, she’s just too good.
Can she scrappily eke an existence living in her artist’s studio? — yes! Does she have a sassy gay friend who is ready to risk his entire career for her? — yes! Does she know how to shop vintage and look better than anyone shopping on the high street? — are you kidding? Hell, yes! But will she ever take a night slumped on her couch watching reruns of CSI, wearing a Snuggie, and eating Hot Pockets? — no.
Maybe she’ll enjoy an old Seinfeld or have an orange juice on the go, but she won’t be doing both together. And sure, she’s a little neurotic, but only in the way that makes her an exciting bedmate for older, successful men who feel like she needs taking care of. But no, Claire is an artist filled with creative powers, which allow her to work for days on end only pausing to get an hour of restless sleep. Incidentally, this schedule also keeps her delightfully slender. Also she’s beautiful. Also she does pro bono work at a boys’ correctional facility. Even though she’s terrified of confined spaces. Nice.
And it has the effect of making me care less about what happens to her ultimately. Yes, she’s forging an artwork, but I wish she’d do it without more justifications than you can count without taking your shoes off.
But it’s a well imagined and fast paced tale. Like her interest in forgery, the author’s love of her hometown shines through it as well, making me wish I could know more of the secrets of Boston than the secrets of Claire.