I’ve been a bit quiet for a while here, but to make up for that here is a book review. The summary will contain spoilers, jump down to the review if you want to avoid them and I’ll do my best to leave them out there.
The story follows the narrator Claire, a disgraced artist who is paints reproductions of famous paintings as a way of paying the bills so that she can paint her own art.
In her past she was dating an older, married man, Isaac, who was an accomplished painter, but being bipolar, was going through a depressive period. She decided to help him paint a work to try to get him to come out of the depressive period, and it seemed to work, she would paint in his style with him critiquing her as she went and telling her where to improve. After they were done, they called the painting 4D and it became a wildly popular painting. Claire thought of it as a gift to Isaac, and that was that. They were content letting the world think that it really was his painting. However, after he becomes famous off the painting the Claire did, Isaac breaks up with her to lessen the guilt he feels whenever he sees her.
Angry, she tries to get him to come forward with the fact that he didn’t paint the painting thinking that admitting to the hoax would lessen his guilty conscience more than blaming her and cutting her out of his life. Isaac refuses to though and she goes to the museum that bought his work, telling them that it was in fact she that painted 4D. They have her paint something to try to prove it, then their board voted on whether or not they think she was the true artist. Even though many knew after seeing her paint that she was the artist, they decide to say that she was lying to save face.
After this, it comes out to the public that some girl was claiming to be the true artist of 4D and not Isaac, haunted by a guilty conscience, Isaac commits suicide. His wife publicly blames Claire and the art world shuns her.
Now Claire is visited out of the blue by Aiden Markel, a gallery owner from her past with Isaac. He expresses interest in her series “Windows“, wanting to display them at his gallery. However, he also has a more shady offer for Claire. He brings her a stolen Degas painting, After The Bath, which he wants her to replicate. He tells her that they will sell the forgery to someone, then after they have the money they can return the original to the museum from which it was stolen, The Gardener museum,splitting the cash from their transaction. Claire is iffy at first but eventually agrees.
However while perfecting a method of painting a forgery that won’t be detectable, Claire realizes something, the “original” which Aiden brought to her is itself a fake, being painted by someone left handed. She comes to the conclusion that while it is not a real Degas, it is the painting that was hanging in the museum as a Degas, and was stolen. Thinking that Aiden must know this, she decides not to tell him. However, this soothes her qualms about painting the forgery because while there is technically no crime in painting a reproduction, with the “original” she has not being a true original, there is even less fault to be found with her. Now that she knows the truth though, she sets out to research where the true After the Bath is, who painted the forgery and why it was hanging as an original for so many years.
Her research brings her to the last living relative of Isabella Gardener (The founder of the museum from which the artwork was stolen from), Sandra Stoneham, thinking that she may know which artists Isabella was close enough with to have a possibility of being the creator of the fake Degas. She comes onto the name of an artist Virgil Rendell, and looking through old sketch books of his in Sandra’s house, she discovers that he created a fake for Isabella.
Isabella had been trying to get Degas to give her a painting for some time, and his only condition for giving her a painting was if she would model nude for him. Desperate for a Degas, she finally gave in, only to learn upon the delivery of her painting, that he had incorporated her nude portrait into the painting he gave to her. Now, to cover it up, she got Rendell to paint a fake Degas, the same in every way, except replacing Isabella with another woman. This fake was the one that was hung in the museum.
At the same time that Claire is finding all of this out Aiden sells the copy that she painted to a man, only the man gets caught with it when he was on his way back to India. Everyone was thrilled that they got what they thought to be the original Degas back, and the authorities start working very hard to find who sold the man his painting, thinking that they could find the other paintings that were stolen from the Gardener museum at the same time as After the Bath. Little do they know, they are returning a copy of a forgery to the museum instead of the Degas original, which is still lost, Claire suspects that Isabella would’ve hidden it somewhere rather than destroying it.
The authorities search leads them to Aiden, and he is arrested. To try to free Aiden, Claire sets out to find the missing painting. She searches the Gardener museum maps, following what turn out to be dead ends, but while doing this she too gets arrested by the authorities. Once in custody, she explains everything to try to get herself and Aiden off the hook, because if she can prove she painted the fake, and the original is still out there it will mean that she and Aiden are innocent of any wrong doing. She’s released on bail after having a hearing set, and she frantically tries to find the original painting.
Claire visits Aiden in jail to give him an update, and while talking to him, he tells her the truth: he had never intended to return the original Degas, he was going to keep it in his own collection and blackmail Claire into keeping quiet about it due to her culpability in the forgery. Angry, Claire leaves, still intent on clearing her name.
She returns to Sandra Stoneham’s house to try to find more clues about Rendell when it hits her, she runs through the house, finding the original Degas hanging in Sandra’s own house.
Everything turns out alright, Claire’s Windows series sells very well in her show due to the publicity that the Degas scandal got her. The real original painting is returned to the Gardener, and no one has the heart to charge Sandra with any crimes because she was just trying to hold onto an old family heirloom. Aiden however is still stuck in jail for intent to sell stolen goods.
I enjoyed The Art Forger. It has a little bit of everything, romance, crime, historical fiction, legal battles, this book dipped its toe into lots of different genres, and did so surprisingly well.
The Art Forger also examined what makes up one’s personal identity, and what makes something good art. B.A. Shapiro, had the reader question many things. What really makes something art, is it the work itself, or is it a combination of that, and the circumstances that surround it? Do you have complete control over your own identity, or is it partially shaped by what other people think of you?
I would recommend this book as a light read that most people can get into, that still manages to sneak in some deeper thoughts and moral dilemmas.