The cover of The Art Forger is filled with encomia such as that it’s “a clever, twisty novel about art, authenticity, love, and betrayal” and “a provocative meditation on what we value most,” that it “will . . . leave you with a new appreciation of how paintings are made, evaluated, and understood — not to mention how they’re copied” and even that it’s “great for book discussion groups.”
All of which might tend to obscure the fact that what it really is is a topnotch thriller that had me gripped from start to finish.
Moreover, it’s a thriller that achieves its thrills without resort to fisticuffs and mayhem, or even much by the way of crime. Yes, an important part of the backstory is the (real life) heist in 1990 of thirteen artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a crime that has never been solved, and the main story concerns an act of copying that might or might not be criminal; but what kept me turning the pages at feverish speed was my eagerness to discover how in hell the protagonist was going to extricate herself from a double scrape and rectify an old injustice.
Three years ago student painter Claire Roth was in a relationship with an older, married and relatively well known artist, Isaac Cullion. When he suffered a bout of artists’ block, she as a sort of love-game painted a picture for him. Sure enough, the art world regarded it as his masterpiece and it was bought to hang in MoMA as a major attraction. Her later attempts to establish the painting’s true origins were futile, and when Isaac committed suicide she was blamed and disgraced. Now she survives through producing replicas for a reproduction house while, in her spare time, painting pictures that no one much wants to look at.
And then one day a famous dealer arrives on her doorstep asking her if she’d be amenable to painting a copy for him. When he produces the picture in question she realizes it’s one of the Degas paintings that was stolen in the Gardner heist. But, as soon as she’s calmed her conscience (the promise of a solo show at the dealer’s swanky gallery is a major balm) and settles in to start copying it, she discovers that, while unquestionably it’s the painting that was stolen from the Gardner, it’s equally unquestionably itself a forgery . . .
That’s the premise upon which Shapiro builds the complications that go to form her utterly engrossing story.
Claire, who’s our first-person narrator for almost the entirety of the novel, is a highly engaging if not wholly admirable character with whom it’s easy to identify — a great companion, in other words. Every now and then the text is punctuated by longish letters, dating from around the fin de siècle, supposedly sent by Isabella “Belle” Stewart Gardner to her niece Amelia, and Belle too proves a very amenable narrator. Degas himself is portrayed in Belle’s letters as a charming lech in the French manner: I have no idea if this is true-to-life, and for that matter I’ve no clue if the Belle who emerges from these pages is anything like the historical personality.
Shapiro has written a couple of further art world-related novels plus a few apparently more conventional thrillers. You bet I’ll be revisiting her work.