The Collector's Apprentice
By B.A. Shapiro. (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 344 pages, $27.95.)
Art and intrigue make scheming bedfellows in the latest novel by B.A. Shapiro, master of the "historical art thriller." This time she takes on the 1920s art world as post-Impressionism is taking hold. The shape-shifting Cubists and color-crazed Fauvists are captivating Paris, and Gertrude Stein presides over soirées with Picasso and Matisse. Into this world steps Vivienne Gregsby, a young woman reeling from a disastrous engagement to a con man who cost her family their fortune and art collection. She appears to catch a break when American tycoon Edwin Bradley hires her to help him assemble an art collection for a museum in Philadelphia. Then her ex-fiancé con artist reappears. George — or is it Benjamin, or Ashton, or Ivan? — wants her back for his next escapade. She wants her family's collection back — and revenge. Their sparring takes a darker turn when Vivienne's boss dies in suspicious circumstances.
Once again, Shapiro stitches her suspense into real life, with Bradley and Vivienne resembling the mercurial Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes and his assistant Violette de Mazia. The plot requires readers to suspend disbelief in key places, but the payoff is a fast-moving, multifaceted battle of wits. Art lovers will savor Shapiro's sensual descriptions of paintings that bring now legendary masterpieces to life.
A Spark of Light
By Jodi Picoult. (Ballantine Books, 369 pages, $28.99.)
Jodi Picoult has tackled, as she once ticked off for an interviewer, "neonaticide, the death penalty, mercy killing, stem cell research, the right to die, gay rights" in her long career. What could be left? For her 27th novel, the controversy du jour is abortion — specifically, a shooting at a family planning clinic in Jackson, Miss., and how lives inside the building and out are touched over the course of one long day.
This being Picoult, of course, there is a gimmick. She tells "A Spark of Light" backward; beginning at 5 p.m., each chapter jumps back an hour until it's breakfast time. This has the effect of peeling back the layers of the characters and their motivations (the doctor whose mother died from a botched abortion, the undercover provocateur, the ambivalent patient, the girl facing murder charges, the gunman himself), but it also contributes to a confusion that's perhaps reflective of such a traumatic incident. There's a Janine and a Joy and a Bex and a Beth, and it takes a few moments to remember who's who and what's their back story. Thankfully, the narrative keeps returning to 15-year-old Wren, who has come to the clinic with her trusted aunt to obtain birth control, and her police officer father, who is (rather unethically) overseeing the hostage operation. Dad and daughter are the heart of the book, the reason to keep reading — at least until an 11th-hour twist that is best ignored.
Picoult has done her research (the afterword details the hundreds of interviews she conducted), and she treats the subject with admirable evenhandedness. Yet it's obvious where her sympathies lie. Will this turn off some of her loyal readers? More likely, some minds on both sides will be changed, or at least challenged, by Picoult's thoughtful prose.