Steve Martin's previous fiction output consisted of two slight novellas -- and by slight I don't mean just that they didn't have a lot of pages. They were books that probably would have had a far more difficult time finding a publisher or getting media attention had they not been written by a world-famous comedian and film star.
Neither prepared me for "An Object of Beauty," a novel so smart, funny and insightful that, were it up to me, I'd insist Martin quit showbiz and write full time.
It is about Lacey Yeager, who is pragmatic, charismatic, manipulative, ambitious. And, yes, an object of beauty. She comes to New York in 1993 seeking fame and fortune in the art world. Her timing is perfect; the art market is about to explode.
From a lowly position at Sotheby's uptown she winds up owning her own gallery downtown, surviving 9/11 but not her flirtation with the line that marks right from wrong.
In part, the book is a character study. Lacey is a black hole sucking men into her orbit, effortlessly getting them to do her bidding. Everyone from Daniel Franks, the book's narrator, an art critic and college friend, to the FBI agent investigating her shady dealings, becomes complicit in her plan.
While in some ways evil (she defrauds members of her own family), she is sympathetically drawn, a modern, independent woman whose vitality is sufficient to make people forgive her misdeeds.
But the book is also satire about a business whose purpose became "converting objects of beauty into objects of value."
It is a business where "a kitchen sink that hangs on a wall" can be described as "an amazing piece." Where paintings that "weren't that good ... suddenly become good" when a noted collector buys some. Where art, at least downtown, is no longer discussed in terms of skill and technique, but "in the 'language of relational aesthetics' or something like that, an argot with a semantic shelf life of about six months."
Another object of beauty is Martin's often elegant writing. He describes a dress Lacey wears as "so transparent that when she passes between me and a bay window hot with sunlight, the dress seemed to incinerate like flash paper."
Finally, could "An Object of Beauty" be a metaphor for what's happened to the country over the past couple of decades -- where we place value not on beauty but on money? Have we all become Laceys, where it is all about us? At least one reader read it that way.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.