The Art Forger
by B. A. Shapiro

Algonquin, 2012. ISBN 978-1-616-10132-6.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 10/31/2012

Fiction: Literary; Fiction: Mainstream; Fiction: Mystery

Want to learn the techniques of forging major works of art? This book could be your text. Billed as a suspense thriller and highly acclaimed, it seems to me to be more a novel of deception, on many levels, with elements of mystery, suspense, and—yes—romance. Forgery is the ultimate deception—but, so of course, is betrayal by a lover.

The main story features Claire Roth, a struggling Boston artist who does art reproductions for a living and has become a pariah in the fine arts community. Her big but risky chance comes when the owner of a prestigious gallery hires her to create an illegal, forged copy of a major Degas painting, one of his After the Bath series. The carrot that Aiden Markel of Markel G. holds out to her is the promise of an exhibit at his gallery of her original series of works on windows. Claire sells her soul but not without cost...and she uncovers a significant secret about the work she's copying.

Woven into this base story are at least three other threads that become subtexts. One is the story of the still-unsolved 1990 heist of thirteen works of art, worth over $3 million on the market today, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. One of the stolen works is the Degas that Markel brought Claire to copy. A second thread is the intriguing story of Isabella Stewart Gardner, wealthy, eccentric, far too daring for a nineteenth-century Boston matron. She traveled to Europe often, preferred the company of men, especially artists, and accumulated a fabulous collection of European art. Then she built a magnificent if incongruous structure in Boston to house her collection and left orders that after her death no piece was to be moved from the spot where she placed it. Rumors swirled about her, but no one knows much for a fact because before her death she burned all letters in her possession and ordered recipients of her letters to do the same. They complied. A few standard biographies do little to illuminate her in life, and, according to novelist B. A. Shapiro, there is no record that she ever actually met Degas.

This lack of information, however, gives Shapiro freedom to let her imagination roam—and she does in the second thread of the tapestry that forms this novel. A series of fictional letters from Belle to an imaginary niece reveal her daring encounters with Edgar Degas and leave one wondering how much Belle left out and Amelia read between the lines. Wait! Remember these are fictional letters. Belle the letter-writer is charming, capricious, unpredictable and hints at a lack of decorum.

The final thread explores Claire's long affair with Isaac Cullion, a "blocked" artist she helps out of his abyss because she loves him—that help and its consequences both amaze and frustrate her. Gradually we learn that Isaac, after the success of his work 4D, committed suicide, and still later we learn how the entire episode made a pariah of Claire.

Shapiro weaves these threads together skillfully but sometimes the abrupt change of voice and topic is disconcerting. The base story of Claire is told in first person present tense—a voice not common in fiction and difficult to carry off. Shapiro does it well, switching appropriately to past tense for such stories as Claire's affair with Isaac and what went on three years before the main story. But Shapiro comes dangerously close to shifting from fiction's narrative to exposition in long sections on painting technique and lessons in forgery as taught by the most ingenuous art forger of the twentieth century, Han van Meegeren, who was so good that he was jailed as a Nazi collaborator after WWII for selling a Vermeer to Hermann Goering. Van Meegeren gained his freedom by demonstrating that the painting in question was a forgery. But, among other innovations, he invented the technique of baking paint so it would quickly take on the hardness that only comes naturally after at least a century.

In almost the first half of the book Shapiro figuratively prepares her canvas—scraping away old paint, getting ready to add the new paint of her masterpiece. In addition to passages on technique, Claire tells endlessly of hours spent studying Degas' work, although she is already an acclaimed expert, reading countless books on his art, studying sketchbooks. It's all fascinating but not necessarily the stuff of thriller fiction.

Shapiro is knowledgeable about art and has obviously brings extensive study to this book. The result is a complex, dense book that eventually captured me, forcing me to keep reading. But I had a hard time getting into the early parts, even though I found the lessons in painting and forgery of interest. After well over a hundred pages, the pace and suspense quicken, and I, as a reader, was anxious to read to the end.

Read an excerpt from this book.

B. A. Shapiro is the author of six novels. Previously she directed research projects for a residential substance abuse facility, worked as a systems analyst/statistician, headed the Boston office of a software development firm, and served as an adjunct professor teaching sociology at Tufts University and creative writing at Northeastern University. She lives with her family in Boston. Visit her website.

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