I’m a sucker for ‘art fiction,’ or whatever you want to call it. It’s odd because I know very little about art and I can’t paint, but I really do like the stories. The Swan Thieves, Claude and Camille, The Girl with the Pearl Earring… they just work for me, hence why I picked up The Art Forger. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the arty mystery/crime/thriller that I ended up with!
Plot summary: Almost twenty-five years after the infamous art heist at the Isabella
Stewart Gardner Museum still the largest unsolved art theft in history
one of the stolen Degas paintings is delivered to the Boston studio of a
young artist. Claire Roth has entered into a Faustian bargain with a
powerful gallery owner by agreeing to forge the Degas in exchange for a
one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But as she begins her work, she
starts to suspect that this long-missing masterpiece the very one that
had been hanging at the Gardner for one hundred years may itself be a
forgery. The Art Forger is a thrilling novel about seeing and not seeing
the secrets that lie beneath the canvas.
I had no idea when I bought this book that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist was a real thing, but it is and this makes me unexplainably happy. Not on the museum’s behalf, obviously, but I love when novels a) give me things to research on Wikipedia and b) take real, slightly obscure events and give them a literary twist. Plus, who doesn’t love a good art robbery?
I was hooked by the first page. Like I said earlier though, this stuff is my crack. The prose is deeply average (if such a thing is possible) – not great, but not bad either. It’s the type that seems a little clunky at first, but that melts away when the story gets going. The narrative flicks between now, when Claire is presented with Degas’ After the Bath V (which isn’t, and never has been, a real painting in our world), and the past where we slowly discover why Claire has been blackmarked by the art community.
This isn’t quite the great revelation that it’s supposed to be as we’re more or less told what happened from the beginning, which defeats the purpose of the flashbacks somewhat. I was way more interested in current Claire than sad, previous Claire, as she was more than a little naive and the story wasn’t giving me anything new.
Interspersed are fictional letters between Isabella Stewart Gardner (the lady who put together the museum from which the paintings were stolen, obviously) and her niece, which I wasn’t keen on at all. To me, it brought down the tone of the book and made it feel rather silly, like something you’d find in a YA novel. They’re just too obvious – like obnoxiously dismissing the idea that George Eliot is a woman and other little in-jokes. I see what she meant to do here, but it didn’t work for me.
Roughly two third of the way through, the book changes tone and becomes more of a mystery, as Claire goes on the hunt for the missing Degas. There’s an investigation, clues, secret rooms… etc. It’s odd and really pushes the boundaries of credibility. It involves a lot of random guesswork on Claire’s part that naturally turns out to always be correct – she decides the painting is a forgery based on nothing, miraculously knows exactly where to look to find the evidence and amazingly manages to find the original, somehow.
I know I sound like I didn’t like The Art Forger, but I actually did. There’s just no getting around the fact that the first part was much better than the second, before Detective Claire kicked in. I think I also expected something slightly heavier, which threw me a little. It is worth reading as I enjoyed the detailed explanations of technique and famous forgeries in history, but the hunt for the missing Degas leaves a lot to be desired.