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The Mindful Reader: ‘The Art Forger’ keeps the mystery going

Last modified: 11/14/2012 12:14:27 AM
Boston novelist B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger kept me up late wondering what would happen to Claire Roth, the deliciously complicated character at the center of this “literary thriller.” Last summer I read Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist, about the unsolved theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Shapiro doesn’t get into the heist itself but imagines what might happen if one of the stolen works surfaced.

Claire is a young artist scarred by a professional and personal scandal involving her relationship with a well-known painter. She’s been shut out of the art world and works as a “certified Degas copyist” for Reproductions.com. Prominent art dealer Aiden Markel visits her studio and offers her a solo show at his Boston gallery.

The catch? She has to copy one of the Gardner’s missing works.

Aiden promises to pay her more than she’s ever made, sell her copy and return the original to the museum. Claire is nervous about the scheme but can’t resist the opportunity to redeem her reputation and see the stolen art returned.

Aiden brings a large Degas entitled After the Bath to her studio. She dives into the work, studying Degas paintings, pouring over his sketchbooks, and analyzing the work of great forgers of the past. It doesn’t take Claire long to realize that After the Bath is a fake.

But is it the painting that was stolen? And if so, was Isabella Stewart Gardner aware of the forgery?

Shapiro weaves together details about painting, art forgery, museums and galleries with her absorbing story and a fictionalized account of Isabella Gardner’s relationship with Edgar Degas.

Her writing is vivid and entertaining, illuminating the mysterious and rarified art world and how human nature – particularly a desire to protect one’s reputation – can overwhelm logic, professionalism and even morality.

A few of the minor characters are somewhat typecast, and Aiden is a bit flat at times, but the storytelling made up for these flaws and book clubs would enjoy The Art Forger.

‘The Paternity Test’ by Michael Lowenthal

Former University Press of New England editor Michael Lowenthal’s new novel is a searing psychological drama. A gay couple, Stu and Pat, hire a married Brazilian immigrant, Debora, as a surrogate mother for their baby.

The novel probes the emotional turmoil of a couple trying to become parents, as well as the consequences of following sexual and emotional impulses, what it means to be committed, and whether domestic habit can seal the cracks in a relationship.

While Pat and Stu are the heart of the story, Lowenthal deftly draws their family and friends and Debora’s family into the tension.

The ending is anything but neat and tidy, as Lowenthal leaves readers with plenty to ponder.

‘My Escapee’ by Corinna Vallianatos

Jhumpa Lahiri selected this short fiction collection by Vermont author Corinna Vallianatos for the Grace Paley Prize. The characters in these stories, mostly women, are almost all acting counter to the world’s expectations of them.

Vallianatos explores their inner lives, exposing their choices and desires, the hard edges and soft comforts of their lives.

Age and illness, infirmity and death, love and betrayal, motherhood and youthful indecision – Vallianatos sculpts this ordinary stuff of life into stories that make common human frailties beautiful.

‘Nebulae: a Backyard Cosmography’ by Dana Wilde

This self-published book of essays collects Wilde’s Bangor Daily News “Amateur Naturalist” columns with longer pieces.

Besides making astronomy and physics clear to the layman, Wilde muses on science history, psychology, philosophy and mythology.

His observations about the emotions star-gazing induces – “awe, strangeness, fear, humility, and sometimes dreams of untold infinities” – and the strangeness of space-time are intriguing, as are the parallels he draws between contemporary science and ancient knowledge.

Some passages are quite beautiful, such as this one describing late afternoon sunlight on fall leaves: “The angle of the light pries something loose. The mind finds itself inside those shafts and colors. . . . For a moment there is a sense that this autumn afternoon is the whole of autumn, all autumns from childhood up through autumns yet to come.”

A few pieces seemed a bit too similar, but this is a well-written, erudite and interesting collection.

(Deb Baker can be reached at mindfulreader@yahoo.com)


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