This book is: a great story.
Other elements: art, crime, forgery, Degas, Isabelle Gardener, the Gardener museum heist, Boston.
Read it: if you have any interest in the art world or if you don’t but you love a good story.
Overall rating: 7/10
The contemporary heroine of the story is Claire Roth, aspiring painter struggling against the spotty reputation she’s won in the art world thanks to a misguided attempt she made to help her ex-lover through a difficult time. Claire has a talent for copying the work of other artists, which, thanks to Reproductions.com, is how she makes a living while waiting for her own original work to receive the attention it deserves.
The building was once a factory–handkerchiefs, some old-timer told me. But old-timers aren’t known for their veracity, so it could have been hats or suspenders or maybe not even a factory at all. Now it’s a warren of artist’s studios, some, as in my case, live-in studios. Illegal, of course, but cheap. – Page 5
The plot of the The Art Forger takes its inspiration from real life events: the colorful and still mysterious Gardener museum art heist. The story flashes back and forth between Claire’s present, in which she’s trying make a name for herself, and the past of the infamous Isabelle Gardener of the Gardener Museum, whose life and legacy become increasingly relevant to Claire’s present. Shapiro takes this true story and weaves a web of fictional and historical characters in and around the true events to create a fascinating and completely engrossing story of fine art, love, questionable morality, and festering secrets.
One of Shapiro’s strongest points is her characters: even those with only minor roles are well-rounded and complex. No one is simply evil or good; they’re all real people with motivations and of their own. And – although I can barely draw a symmetrical stick figure – my writerly self felt a kinship for the community of aspiring artists who meet at their local bar every day to talk about recent failures and the occasional success. I think any kind of art (written or painted) has a similar amount of heartbreak inherent in the process of searching for recognition and validation.
“Did it go well?” Mike asks. We sometimes call Mike “the church lady” in joking salute to his keen sense of right and wrong.
“I’m guessing not, although I wasn’t expecting much.” A lie everyone recognizes. They’ve all said the same thing after a career disappointment. It’s how we survive.
“A shot of tequila for my friend here,” Mike says to Maureen. Aside from Rik, who isn’t really an artist anymore, Mike’s the only one of us who can afford actual drinks. He’s a lawyer by day, painter by night. – Page 17
My favorite aspect of The Art Forger was the inclusion of so much technical information related to art authentication and forgery. I’m a sucker for a book that treats me like I’m capable of understanding as much about something as the main character does, and this was no exception. I love feeling like I’m learning along with the characters, and I lap up the random trivia, the more obscure the better. (Cutting for Stone is another great example of a book that excels at interweaving large amounts of technical information.) Art forgery is both sufficiently obscure that I didn’t really know anything about it going into the novel, and sufficiently fascinating to keep me interested when things got complicated.
The dialogue isn’t always the most free-flowing, and certain plot events are rather too coincidental to be entirely believable – but I still had a great time reading The Art Forger.
I also happened to start reading this book shortly after the Boston Marathon (and all of the events that followed the marathon this year), at which point it felt very timely to be reading a novel set in Boston, especially a story that delves so exquisitely into the city’s cultural history and rich, artistic present.