What's that you say? You're in the mood for a thriller, but spies with 20 passports, phenomenal hacking skills and black belts in every known form of martial arts fill you with ennui? You'd just as soon have a root canal as follow yet another cross-continent terrorist hunt? You skip ahead to see when the obligatory graphic torture scene will end?
Hey, me too, which is why I happily devoured "The Art Forger," an intelligent, cleverly plotted page-turner about (as you've already guessed) art forgery -- and art theft and art creation. The fate of the world doesn't hang in the balance, not even the fate of the art world. But man, did I want to know what happens next.
Claire Roth, once a promising art student but now an art world pariah, pays her bills by creating "perfect replicas" whose "provenance only an art historian could discern" for the online site Reproductions.com -- a perfectly legal enterprise, by the way. She is particularly good at reproducing the luminous glazes of Degas -- in fact, too good, and perhaps a bit too proud of her ability to master his complicated process. When she is approached by a gallery owner to reproduce (read: forge) a Degas masterpiece that bears a striking resemblance to one stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, she doesn't ask too many awkward questions, particularly since the reward will be a solo show of her original work at the most prestigious gallery in town.
Thus begins a most entertaining romp through the overlapping worlds of painters, forgers, collectors and curators. Shapiro knows her stuff; she understands the artistic friendships, jealousies and egos of the art world, the near-transcendent experience of truly seeing a great masterpiece and the profound satisfaction of getting an individual vision on canvas and getting it right. She gets the techniques and psychology of successful forgers and the pathology of obsessive collectors.
And she understands how to tell a really good story. Right away we learn that Claire has been dubbed "The Great Pretender." We don't know why, and the back story that begins in Chapter 3 merely tantalizes us with the promise of future revelations. The same thing happens in Chapter 6, which reproduces a letter from Isabella Stewart Gardner (the founder and benefactor of the eponymous museum in Boston) to "my dearest Amelia." Present, past and deep past run parallel to each other but, like the lines of a highway in a perspective drawing, converge most satisfactorily at the end of the road.
Shapiro's prose exudes the confidence and vitality of an Old Master's brush strokes in this engaging, literate thriller.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.