Back in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed of 13 works of art , some by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas, that have never been found. Author B. A. Shapiro takes this real-world incident and builds a novel around it that, substituting a fictional work by Degas for one of his (lesser-known) works actually stolen.
Claire Roth is a struggling young painter who is a bit of a pariah in the art world. She's been reduced to making copies of famous paintings for an online company that sells reproductions, and has become rather good at the task. She is approached by Aidan Markel, an attractive art gallery owner, who claims to have intercepted one of the museum's stolen works. He wants Claire to paint a reproduction that he will sell as the original, then he will return the actual original to the museum. Claire will get $50K (a third up front), plus her own art show at his gallery.
Claire agrees - partly for reasons that become clear in a second narrative line, set three years earlier. By page 93 (of the 355-page novel), she realizes that the "original" Degas is actually a forgery - which starts the mystery, as Claire tries to figure out where the "real" original is. That also brings in the third narrative line - a number of fictional letters by Isabella Stewart Gardner to her fictional niece, from 1886 to 1898 - that provide clues to what really happened. I was able to figure that part out pretty quickly.
The best part of this novel was Shapiro's descriptions of the techniques (and some real examples) of art forgery - it was fascinating! She also did a good job with evoking the lifestyle of a struggling artist, and with her settings - especially place and weather (although I have never been to Boston, and can't vouch for their accuracy).
The book also poses some interesting moral questions. Claire justifies what she's doing with these thoughts (from page 31):
There's no crime in copying a painting--obviously, as this is how I make the money I dutifully report to the IRS every April--the criminal part doesn't come until a copy is put up for sale as the original. Ergo, the seller, not the painter, is the crook.
Yet it's clear she knows something is wrong. Her previous experiences make what she does understandable, but not necessarily right.
I would recommend this as a fun read (character development and the mystery are a little weak), and possibly as a good book for a group discussion, due to the art history and the moral questions.
© Amanda Pape - 2012
[I received copies of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and as a winner in the Bookreporter.com Fall Preview contest. The hardbound copy will be donated to a library, and the advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]