A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Having enjoyed Shapiro’s earlier book The Art Forger, I was eager to read her new one. When I did, I found it remarkably pertinent.There are two narratives, one is in the present day where a young woman(Danielle) works in Christie’s art department and has found some small paintings hidden in the backs of larger ones. Though they aren’t signed, the style is uncannily similar to the paintings of her aunt, Alizee Benoit, an artist who disappeared in 1940. The second narrative, told in alternate chapters, focuses on the aunt and her circle of friends as she worked on murals for the WPA.
Most people know of the Works Progress Administration activities in infrastructure, building roads and park trails, but there was a whole section devoted to putting artists to work doing murals for public buildings. There’s even one at City Hall in my little suburb. It was fascinating learning more about the program’s activities in New York City, which included some now famous names such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.
For anyone worried that the book might be too “arty”, let me reassure you it never gets too technical. For the most part, art is more of a mindset, a way of working out ideas to translate them into paintings. The book does a good job of portraying the process of how an artist thinks and the struggles of getting their emotions into another medium.
Alizee’s story starts at the beginning of WW2, when she is frantically trying to get her family out of France before the Nazis completely take over. In her efforts, she discovers corruption and deliberate delays by those in charge of visas and immigration, as well as widespread anti-Semitism in the general public. The attitudes towards refugees are eerily echoed in America today and we know what happened to so many at that time. It’s disheartening that we’ve learned nothing from the past.
The tension of Alizee trying to rescue her relatives and Danielle tracking down what happened to Alizee herself, give the plot a sort of double mystery. The two stories blend very well, without jarring or artifice and the combination shows the power of art to connect families and the impact of global tragedies upon those we love.
Algonquin Books 2015 352 pp. ISBN-13:978-1616203573