Synopsis from Goodreads: On March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art today worth over $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It remains the largest unsolved art heist in history, and Claire Roth, a struggling young artist, is about to discover that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.
Making a living reproducing famous artworks for a popular online retailer and desperate to improve her situation, Claire is lured into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge a painting—a Degas masterpiece stolen from the Gardner Museum—in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But when that very same long-missing Degas painting is delivered to Claire’s studio, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery.
Her desperate search for the truth leads Claire into a labyrinth of deceit where secrets hidden since the late nineteenth century may be the only evidence that can now save her life
My Rating: 5/5 stars
My Review: It takes a rich imagination indeed to make a story like the real-life and still unsolved theft of $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston more interesting. Congratulations B.A. Shapiro, you have done just that and what a fantastic imagination you have!
Claire Roth was, just three short years ago a graduate student with a promising career as a painter in her future. Thanks to one significant and utterly disastrous decision Claire’s bright future and budding reputation are derailed simultaneously leaving her known in the art world as The Great Pretender and her former professor (and lover) dead. Claire now spends her days diligently and expertly copying famous works of art for an on-line retailer and having little to no hope of making a new name for herself on the strength of her own paintings. And then one day the strikingly handsome and incredibly prominent art dealer and gallery owner, Aiden Markel shows up on Claire’s doorstep with a proposition. The proposition is both elegant and simple: copy one of the paintings long-thought lost in the Gardner Museum heist, make a ton of money, and earn yourself a one-woman show in Markel’s gallery. Markel’s delivery is so smooth and confident and Claire is, quite frankly so desperate, that she makes yet another significant and disastrous decision. The money is just too good to pass up, the one-woman show is an unexpected and once unfathomable opportunity and, according to Markel there is no way the dirty deed can be traced back to either one of them.
From the moment the painting Claire is to copy arrives in her apartment she has some serious doubts about its authenticity. Given the sketchy nature of her job Claire chooses to keep those doubts to herself and sets to work copying the work of the great 19th century Impressionist master, Degas. This section of the book is one of its great strengths with fascinating background information about known and very successful forgers, the process by which one forges or copies a great master, and how the “original” work Claire is copying came be a part of Belle Gardner’s private collection. Shapiro flawlessly mixes fact and fiction to create a wonderfully detailed backstory involving Belle Gardner, Degas, and the building of one of the U.S.’s most important collections of art. Shapiro is very careful not to overdue the technical elements of the forging process so the story will appeal to a wide range of readers and not just those with a background in art and art history.
As Claire works we learn more about her past and how she came to be known as the Great Pretender. Claire’s sad past elicits sympathy from the reader but also feeling of frustration as you see her walking into the same trap she found herself in previously. Again, Claire stupidly falls for the charms of an older man who has promised her things he just can’t deliver. And this, dear reader is where the story really, really gets good. Of course you know the entire scheme unravels and Claire’s only hope of saving herself and Aiden is to prove, beyond all doubt, that the “original” Degas she copied was in fact a forgery as well. Claire’s quest to prove the “original” Degas is a forgery leads to her having to reveal her role in the scheme as well as proving she copied to work by doing the whole thing again in front of a group of experts. This is by far the fastest-paced section of the novel and it brings the past and present together in a delightfully interesting way. All of the secrets, all of the schemes, and all of the plots come to light and not all is well in the end.
The bottom line: this is a fantastically well-written bit of art historical fiction that I had a very, very hard time putting down once I got into the story. Getting into the story took about four pages, by the way. Both Claire and Belle’s respective pasts are intriguing and certainly inform the plot, the real forging information is fascinating and the drama of the plot will keep you from putting the book down. I love that Shapiro is willing to sacrifice the happiness of some her characters in favor of the overall plot and how her writing style is reminiscent of one of my favorite authors, Susan Vreeland. Shapiro is in no way a forgery (HA!) of Vreeland but a fine contemporary writing in the same vein. This novel will certainly appeal to lovers of mystery (the heist), art and art history as well as those interested in finely crafted and fast-paced reads.