One of my reading groups has a real enjoyment for books about art – from the novel Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland to the non-fiction You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett. Some are great, some are not so hot – but how can one tell prior to reading? – Anyway, this was the choice and on the schedule so, albeit with some reluctance, I read it.
There are times when reading a generally poorish book sharpens my appreciation of the good ones and the reasons they’re good. Also, the literary value of this book is in almost pointed contrast to the completely delightful historical fictions I’ve read recently – particularly His Bloody Project by Graeme McCrae Burnett and The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. It’s hard to pinpoint why those are so excellent and this one is so poor.
by B.A. Shapiro
2015 / 368 pages
read by Xe Sands 9h 9m
rating 7 / contemp fiction/historical WWII
Danielle Abrams, a young cataloguer of artworks for Christie’s in New York City finds some works she believes were painted by her aunt, Alizée Benoit, a Jewish abstract impressionist who disappeared in New York City in about 1940. Benoit has been a family mystery ever since she disappeared. That’s one thread.
The second major thread concerns the art world of New York City during WW II and Benoit’s place in it. She is a completely fictional character but the focal point of the novel and supposedly the inspiration for artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and Lee Krasner. The tension of the story builds around what happened to Benoit as we follow Danielle and her search in the 21st century, and in the alternating chapters which follow Beniot in 1940. Benoit’s life is told from several points of view, her own and a few of her friends.
Benoit’s life story takes place in the US where she works for the Federal Art Project of the WPA and mingles with the their artists (including Rothco, Pollock, etc.) as well as Eleanor Roosevelt.
Her own main plot is getting her relatives out of Europe before they’re imprisoned by Hitler – 1939-40. Meanwhile, the US government is doing next to nothing – actually, in this story and historically, some powers in the US are actively impeding the escape of the Jewish refugees.
This is the kind of book which really gets on my nerves because just about everything in it feels contrived – often to fit with its “message.” There’s definitely a polemic edge to it concerning US concern (or lack of it) for Jewish refugees and with that there are overtones of today’s issues concerning the refugees from the Middle East. (I’m not sure that’s deliberate – it may be the nature of the issue.)
There are too many peripheral characters who are unrelated to each other like Eleanor Roosevelt and Breckinridge Long as well as some of the artists. None of them ever feels real – even the historical ones feel like fictional cut-outs. And they weren’t flat for the purposes of satire or to mirror the issues or to promote a theme or plot line. Those are acceptable reasons to have flat characters. My feeling is that these characters are supposed to be fully realized individuals, but something is missing, it doesn’t work.
And the abundance of themes is too heavy and complex for the skills of Shapiro – abstract impressionism, WWII, Hitler, escaping Jews, mental illness and more.
Another annoying aspect is the cliche’d narrative. And the dialogue ranges from over-the-top emotional and about to break down, to chirpy sweet, to studied casual. (sigh) Much of the problem for this can be placed with the narrator, but not all.
There’s a lot of general knowledge type historical information in the book and there’s no smoothness to it’s inclusion – it feels like a couple of Wikipedia paragraphs about this or that and then back to the story. There are huge unexplained coincidences and the basis for the novel is a completely fictional woman artist working with the WPA, worried about relatives in France, and trying to get them proper visas. It’s entirely fictional – hypothetical maybe – so these historical details are just swirling around an emptiness.
Finally, the narrator of the audio version is horrible, swinging from overly-emotional and whiny to overly-sweet and hitting way too “casual” in the middle and always with a quavering voice – (or at least that’s how it came across to me). Remember Sally Struthers in the animal protection commercials? – There are times…
On the plus side, when Shapiro writes about art she does a very nice job.
Fwiw, “the Abstract Expressionism movement began in the 1940s in New York City after World War II. However, the first real Abstract Art was painted earlier by some Expressionists, especially Kandinsky in the early 1900s. The main characteristic of abstract art is that it has no recognizable subject. – (Google)
“Early on, the Abstract Expressionists, in seeking a timeless and powerful subject matter, turned to primitive myth and archaic art for inspiration. Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Newman, and Baziotes all looked to ancient or primitive cultures for expression. Their early works feature pictographic and biomorphic elements transformed into personal code. Jungian psychology was compelling too, in its assertion of the collective unconscious. Directness of expression was paramount, best achieved through lack of premeditation.”
There was no “first” to influence the others.
US history: Breckinridge Long: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breckinridge_Long