In 1990, several thieves broke into Boston’s Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum and stole thirteen pieces of art, including works by Degas and Rembrandt. To this day, the heist remains one of the art world’s greatest unsolved mysteries and the gallery — keeping with Isabelle’s stipulation that nothing can ever change — displays empty frames in place of the missing paintings. In her debut novel, The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro takes this infamous crime, adding a few fictional elements to create a twisty new mystery.
Claire Roth is a painter who was blackballed by the Boston art community following a scandal involving her teacher-lover Isaac a few years ago. He signed his name to a painting she created, it went on to be acquired by MoMA, and when Claire tried to insist it was her work, she was cast as a liar and a fame whore. Since then, she’s struggled to make ends meet and earns money creating knockoff prints of famous paintings for the website Reproductions.com. Then one day, she’s approached by Aiden Markel, a high-end art dealer, with a proposition: create a reproduction of one of the stolen Degas paintings (a fictional After the Bath) in exchange for a one woman show at his gallery. He’ll sell the forgery for profit and return the original that he acquired through shadowy means back to the museum once the money’s in hand.
Despite her initial hesitancy, Claire agrees and sets to work studying Degas’ methods so she can re-create them. Through the course of this research, Claire begins to suspect that the painting she was hired to copy is itself not the original. Claire contacts Isabelle’s only living relative — an octagenarian grandniece — hoping to learn more.
This would surely be a great read for anyone interested in painting techniques or forgery. Shapiro goes into painstaking detail about the processes Claire uses to study paintings and then copy them, as well as the ways that art forgeries are distributed as authentic. I certainly learned a lot from this book, but I eventually found myself skimming some of the more detailed passages to get to the plot.
There’s also several extraneous storylines, including Claire’s work at an arts program at a juvenile detention center, a bitchy rival painter, and her affair with Aiden, that don’t seem to contribute much to the overall story. In fact, the sexy bits with Aiden? Over the top. In an “I achieved orgasm just from kissing him, imagine what the oral was like” kind of way. Tina Fey epic eye roll kind of way.
Still, once I could slough through those stray bits, I found myself intrigued by the actual mystery at the heart of the book. To keep things interesting, it’s interspersed with letters from Isabelle to her niece describing her interactions with Degas on her many art-hunting expeditions to Europe. With just a little bit more focus, this book could have been great. As it stands, it was an okay way to spend a weekend that probably won’t stay with me.