To be honest, I haven’t been much into reading fiction lately. When I was in grade school, I used to devour juvenile and young adult novels by the hundreds, but recently I have preferred my television and movies fictional and my books factual. However, when I happened to mention to my boss that I’ve been reading a lot about famous art forgers recently, he told me that I absolutely had to read B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger: A Novel (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2013). Just in case I still wasn’t convinced enough to seek it out on my own, he insisted that I borrow his copy. This is one of the many benefits of working for a bookseller.
In The Art Forger, young, Boston-based artist Claire Roth supports herself making high-quality reproductions of famous paintings after her allegations of plagiarism and forgery against a rising contemporary art star ended in a highly-publicized scandal and the demise of her own career. A prominent Boston art dealer offers her a solo gallery show and a ticket back into the art world’s good graces in exchange for creating a copy of a painting. The painting in question turns out to be a Degas stolen in the still-unsolved 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and now inexplicably appearing in Claire’s studio. As Claire paints what isn’t so much a copy as an outright forgery, she realizes that she may be faking a fake and sets out to discover what happened to the original and why.
Despite the fact that this story includes art, mystery, theft, and forgery — all things I usually enjoy reading about — the book really wasn’t my cup of tea. My issues with it started when I realized (and confirmed through some research) that the Degas painting the main character is asked to copy isn’t real. There were five Degas drawings stolen from the Gardner in 1990, but no oil paintings, and while Degas did do several similar bather paintings, the work in the book is an invention. This by itself isn’t a big deal; I completely understand and respect artistic license. However, the majority of the book’s plot pretty much revolves around the sensational, fictionalized backstory of the fictional painting. This means that although the book is supposedly inspired by Isabella Stewart Gardner and the theft at her museum, very little of it is based on anything that actually happened. Why would you decide to write a book about one of the most fascinating art crimes of the 20th century, but then immediately start changing the facts of the event? If the author felt that the Gardner heist was compelling enough to form the jumping-off point for a story set in the present day, why did she feel that she had to add so much new intrigue to past events going all the way back to Gardner’s life in the early twentieth century? It would be like writing a novel about the Founding Fathers, but choosing to invent a fictional Founding Father for the main character although there are so many great, real ones to choose from. Shapiro even went so far as to invent letters by Gardner to explain the backstory of the fictional painting. Working for a historic documents dealer for the past year, I’ve spent many hours with historic correspondence, and I found it obnoxiously obvious that the letters weren’t real. Although Shapiro does acknowledge at the back of the book that neither the letters, nor the niece to whom they are addressed, nor After the Bath (the painting) are real, the fact that she titles each letter “From the Pen of Isabella Stewart Gardner” would be a bit misleading to most readers.
Reading this, you may be thinking that I’m being a bit too picky here. Maybe I am. So I should probably clarify: I don’t think The Art Forger is a bad book or a poorly-written one, just one that I didn’t enjoy personally. I think I’m too invested in the real story of the Gardner theft to be able to enjoy a book that took such liberties with it. I was hoping for an interesting interpretation of real events, even if it was not entirely plausible, but instead got more of a reinvention. If The Art Forger had been about a completely made-up theft, I think I would have been better able to appreciate it. However, it is a thrilling mystery and a compelling commentary on the intersection of love, obsession, ambition, and greed, so it is worth a read for those interested in the plot and characters rather than picky details like I am.
If you’ve already read the book, I would really love to hear what you thought of it. 🙂