"No," I cry, and it sounds like a moan.
I should have guessed from the size of the canvas. This is no ordinary Degas. It's one of his masterworks. After the Bath, the last of five he gave the same name, but by far the most famous.
And that's the least of it. This painting was torn from the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, ripped from its frame. It and all the other works taken that rainy night by a couple of bumbling thieves have never been recovered.
In front of me stands on of the most valuable paintings stolen in the greatest unsolved art theft in history.
Claire Roth is a talented, struggling young artist. She paints in the style of masters such as Degas. One of her works hangs in the prestigious Museum of Modern Art. Unfortunately, that painting is accredited to her former art professor and lover, and by claiming that she actually painted the work, she was blackballed by the art industry. To pay the bills, Claire paints reproductions (legal copies not passed off as originals) of masterpieces for an above board company while she waits for memories of the scandalous "incident" to fade and her own career to come alive.
Aiden Markel, one of Boston's most powerful gallery owners, drops by her loft/studio with a Faustian deal she simply cannot refuse. If she can effectively forge a Degas missing since the still-unsolved 1990 Gardner Museum heist, he will sell the forgery to some shady art connoisseur (who doesn't deserve the real painting anyway), return the original back to the museum for the world to enjoy, and grant Claire her own show at his gallery. Her rent will be paid, her own works will finally be acknowledged, and the missing masterpiece will be returned to the masses. "There's illegal, and there's illegal." What could possibly go wrong?
The Art Forger effectively blends fact with fiction, coloring a vivid world full of obsessed artists, connoisseurs, and criminals...yet who is who? Shapiro's style is too simple for me to consider it "literary" but I consider that a compliment. When reading about the mysteries I don't enjoy overly verbose clutter distracting me from the plotting. When reading about art I don't want the writer's judgements obscuring my visions.
And Shapiro's descriptions of the forging process are absolutely intriguing. While the missing Degas is a work of fiction (most likely a compilation of several of Degas' bathers series), the techniques used to create the forgery are carefully researched, vividly detailed, and completely absorbing.
Claire is by far the most fleshed-out character. While her reasoning and taste in men might be found lacking, she is engrossing, skilled, and perceptive enough to make her amateur detective skills believable. Correspondence from Isabella Stewart Gardner is interspersed throughout the story, a plot device used to clue the readers in on the true origins of the painting. While I found the tales of her journeys through Europe acquiring her impressive art collection interesting, her fictionalized relationship with Degas required some suspension of disbelief. Not that she may have had such relationship (although one has never been alluded to in reality), but that she would discuss it so openly in a letter.
While some aspects of the crime story were predictable, there were enough swerves to keep me reading until the wee hours. I'm also a sucker for novels that leave me feeling as if I've gained some knowledge along the way, and Shapiro expertly blends facts into a masterful tale, making me pull out some of my tomes on art history and wish I remembered more from my classes. Any art lover will adore this book.
The Art Forger is the January She Reads book club pick. She Reads is GIVING AWAY 10 COPIES of The Art Forger (courtesy of Algonquin Books). Enter to win and check out more reviews of the book by clicking here.
The Art Forger
by B.A. Shapiro
$23.99 [hardcover] $9.58 [Kindle ed.]
*I received this book courtesy of Algonquin Books and the She Reads Blogger Network. All opinions are my own.