Fiction — audiobook. Read by Xe Sands. HighBridge, 2012. 10 hours. Library copy.
Blacklisted by museums, dealers, and most of her fellow artists, Claire Roth produces immaculate copies of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including those by Edgar Degas, for an online retailer.
The gig earns her publicity in the Boston Globe yet the art community continues to marginalize her assuming this gig is befitting of someone who claimed to produce a painting known as “D4” that took the art world by storm three years ago and now hangs at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). So Claire is more than a little surprised when Aiden Markel, dealer of “D4”, calls asking to schedule a studio visit with her.
Aiden offers the struggling artist a deal she cannot refuse: make a high quality copy of a painting in his possession and Aiden will not only pay her thousands of dollars, but he will also offer her a one woman show at his world renowned gallery. The mysterious painting turns out to be Degas’ “After the Bath”, a painting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990 along with twelve other paintings. Aiden swears he’s going to return the painting to the Gardner once Claire finishes her copy; they just need to keep the painting hidden long enough for his buyer to take Claire’s copy out of the country. But as she works on producing her copy, Claire becomes convinced that Aiden’s painting is actually a forgery meaning the original Degas is still missing.
Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the theft, which is why my book club selected it for our meeting tonight, and the front page of the Boston Globe has been dedicated to the Gardner heist for the past few weeks . There hasn’t been any news or changes in the case and, based on my experience visiting the museum, the empty frames continue to overshadow all the paintings still hanging where Gardner placed them. (You can take a virtual tour of the museum focused on the theft online.)
Shapiro’s novel blends two mysteries — what happened to Claire three years ago and what happened to Gardner’s original painting — shifting from the past to the present through Gardner’s (fictional) letters, Claire’s recollections, and the events of the present-day. The shifts in time and narrator are stated clearly at the beginning of each chapter in the audiobook narrated by Xe Sands, although there were a few moments during the course of the audiobook where my mind drifted and I lost my footing in time.
Mainly, though, the novel struggles to present characters with dimensions. Aiden is the suave, wealthy gallery owner Claire will, obviously, fall in love with; Claire is the wronged do-gooder who conducts free art classes at a juvenile detention center. And all of Claire’s friends — the fancy lawyer slumming it at the local bar, the MFA grad school friend working at the Gardner Museum — fit exactly into the roles Shapiro needs them to in order to advance the story.
Shapiro’s attention to details when it comes to painting and art, however, are beautiful rendered in the novel. I felt as though I could see the painting, as though I was bending down next to Claire and examining the intricacies of the brushstrokes to determine if the painting was a forgery or not.
This is one of the few books I’ve read about my new city set in the present day, and I found myself nodding along to many of her descriptions. The walk from where Claire lives on the far side of the South End to Aiden’s gallery in the Back Bay, the brick plaza at Government Center, the pitfalls of the Silver Line — all are truly as described in the book.
And although I solved the mystery of the missing painting about halfway through the audiobook, I rather enjoyed the opportunity to experience my new city through a novel as well as to follow Shapiro’s inventive way of explaining how and why this particular painting went missing.