Inspired by the 1990 robbery at the Gardner Museum in Boston that claimed three of Degas’ drawings, still at large, B.A. Shapiro’s new novel The Art Forger plunges into the seedy underworld of high art. The story follows Claire Roth, an idealistic post-grad artist who’s making her rent by mimicking masterworks for reproductions .com. She’s good. Very good. So why has she been banished from the legitimate art scene?
As a self-proclaimed artless being, I was worried I’d be lost among the brushstrokes, shadows, and turpentine. But Shapiro is an expert docent, silently dismissing any ignorance I thought I had towards the arty world.
Fans of mainstream glossy suspense novels may be disappointed by Shapiro’s relaxed pace–she doesn’t lead with the threat of violence or imminent destruction. But the novel unfolds like a mystery, keeping the reader in suspense about Claire’s past and those stolen Degas drawings. Claire is desperate to regain her reputation as a real artist and show off her gorgeous new paintings, which Shapiro describes so deftly that I both wish I could see the real thing and feel like I already have. When powerful gallery owner Aiden Markel offers her $17,000 and her first one-woman show in his gallery, she’ll do anything for the opportunity–even reproduce her beloved Degas that was stolen all those years ago in the heist.
Blinded by her big break, Claire nods an acceptance and Aiden unveils the stolen painting in her cramped studio. She will work beside it, mirroring it, forging it. But there is something slightly off about this masterpiece and an edge in Aiden’s voice. Why her? Have the trapdoors opened, or does she choose to believe him? The suspense builds as Claire’s pushed into a shadowy half-world where she is left wide-eyed with only a paintbrush to defend herself.
Claire’s world runs parallel with that of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a strong but bored woman with too much of her husband’s money to burn. We are introduced to Isabella in 1886, penning letters from Paris to her beloved niece Amelia. Isabella supplements her passionless marriage with her vast collection of fine art. But like Claire, Aunt Belle is forced to choose between her morals and her desire for art. Both women inhabit a labyrinth of sex, ego, and obsession that leaves the reader wanting more. You’ll want to pick up a paintbrush or rob a gallery by the end of it.
Shapiro reads at Nicola’s Books on December 4.