by Barbara Shapiro
Claire Roth is a struggling artist in one of the soon-to-be up-and-coming districts of Boston, though her work is well-known. Under the name of a few other artists. She gained notoriety as “The Great Pretender” when she began work painting indistinguishable copies of masterpieces using centuries-old painting techniques. She considers herself an expert in the life and work of Degas, and painstakingly recreates his works using layers upon layers of oil and varnish, which leads a local art broker to offer her the opportunity to recreate a rare and treasured piece – Degas’ After the Bath. This is a unique opportunity for Claire not only because it has been one of her beloved works of art since childhood, but it is also the piece that was stolen from the museum almost 20 years ago and has been missing without any leads since then. Could this possibly be the piece that was stolen from the museum? Or is she copying a copy? Her questions about the origin and authenticity of the work lead her on a desperate search for any information she can find about the museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardener. The answers, and lack thereof, lead to even greater mystery, controversy, and intrigue.
“The Art Forger” by Barbara Shapiro explores the world of art from the perspective of an insider on the outside. Claire’s “Great Pretender” status gives her a unique the ability to comment on the hierarchies, social norms, and taboos that are otherwise ignored by those on the inside of the art world. Her training in reproducing classic works of art gives her a more holistic and objective perspective in determining the authenticity of a work of art, whereas the experts in the field are caught up in the image and prestige of the field, which more often than not leads them to see what they want to see rather than what is really in front of their eyes. As a character, Claire stands firm in her truth, even when it causes problems for her and everyone in her life. Shapiro grounds this story in reasonably thorough art history and technique, providing context and detail for Claire’s artistic work and her investigations into After the Bath. Shapiro generally balances this information such that she provides enough structure for the story without getting losing the reader in inscrutable jargon, leaving everything with a bit more knowledge about art and art history.
Kudos to Shapiro for writing a book that makes me want to look at classical paintings! I felt that she jumped into too much technical detail with painting techniques early in the book, but eventually I caught on to what she was talking about. The plot also provided another pleasant surprise. I thought I knew where the story was going, but there were enough unexpected elements to keep me engrossed through the end of the story. Occasionally vapid, but generally enjoyable, I would recommend this book if you stumble upon it. It was a nice change of pace from my regular reading.
By Liane Moriarty
Pirriwee Peninsula seems like an idyllic community for raising children. Great school, close to the ocean, and friendly neighbors that occasionally get too involved in other people’s business. Although it seems like everyone knows what is going on with everyone else, there are a surprising amount of secrets among the school parents. Madeline Mackenzie, who seems to relish conflict as much as a great pair of shoes, shares her opinions freely and bluntly, but isn’t so open about what’s happening within her family and especially with her teenage daughter. Celeste White is simultaneously fascinating and formidable in her surreal amount of wealth and physical beauty, which means very few people see anything beneath the surface. Newcomer Jane Chapman presents the greatest mystery of all, moving to the area with no ties and no apparent motivation other than a whim to be near the ocean. All three moms have children starting kindergarten at Pirriwee Public school, one of the enduring attributes of the Peninsula community. On top of all the regular stress of starting a new school year, the parents of Pirriwee Public must deal with all the school politics, passive-aggressive parent competition, and a potential murder at one of the school fundraisers.
“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a pleasantly refreshing combination of pop-culture fiction and fighting your personal demons. This theme is reiterated throughout the novel by one of the main characters, Madeline Mackenzie, as she struggles to balance her family life, social engagements, and parent involvement at school. Madeline strives for equilibrium by moderating her quick temper and strong emotions with an airy obsession for accessorizing. Although it seems shallow at first, Madeline and the other characters develop depth and complexity throughout the story that require the reader to check their assumptions. A novel feature in Moriarty’s writing are the hooks she leaves at the end of almost every chapter. The book maintains an ongoing commentary related to a police investigation at the school fundraising event, with secondary characters speculating about potential killers and motivations. Because the story moves forward against the retrospective commentary, Moriarty has ample opportunity for foreshadowing, as well as false leads. The chapters are short, often averaging 4-5 pages, and when combined with the notes from the ongoing police investigation, intrigue builds through the early chapters and increases in intensity as the story moves closer and closer to the fundraiser.
I warmed up slowly to this book. I found Madeline’s attention to shoe-related details irrelevant and somewhat alienating, but I was certainly hooked by the police investigation at the end of the chapters. As the story and characters became more complex, I developed greater appreciation (or tolerance) for what made the characters unique in their strengths and challenges. Moriarty’s description of personal demons also seemed very realistic to me, and I respect the way she portrayed ambivalence around difficult or no-win situations. A fast read that only occasionally becomes too narratively convoluted to keep track of the details, this is a great book.