When I started reading B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, I did not expect a book about Jews fleeing Europe during World War II for asylum in the United States to be so relevant to the current political posturing about refugees. Shapiro is best known for The Art Forger, her fictionalized solving of the famous art heist mystery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In The Muralist, art is again the focus, with the added drama of the war, the beginnings of modern art, and a brave artist working for the WPA.
When Dani Abrams, who works at Christie’s auction house, accidentally finds small abstract paintings hidden behind works by famous abstract expressionist artists, she sees a resemblance to the art by her aunt, Alizee Benoit. Alizee, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along side Pollock, Rothko and Lee Krasner, before they were famous, vanished in New York City in 1940, while trying to free her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. As Dani tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance, the story flashes back to Alizee during the prewar politics of 1939 and the forgotten refugees refused entrance to the United States at that time.
Shapiro’s style commands attention to details with references to key players during the war. Eleanor Roosevelt is neatly portrayed as feisty as biographers have revealed her, and references to artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko include relevant excerpts from their early lives and careers. Benoit’s fictionalized paintings have the power of Picasso’s Guernica. Luckily, Shapiro includes an “Author’s Note” identifying which characters and plot lines are based on real happenings in history – some were a revelation. I still found myself double checking her research with her villain, Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of State who ignored FDR’s Presidential plan to bring Jews from Europe to escape Hitler’s death sentence. Alas, he did exist – another sad note in American history, and an echo of some of the politics being bandied about today.
The heroine, Alizee Benoit, did not ever exist, except in the imagination of the author, but her work with the WPA, her initiation of new frontiers in art, and the mystery of her disappearance – all fuel a fast-paced mystery while providing historical information. The plot twists and turns, as it alternates from present-day to prewar America, leading to a satisfying ending, and finally revealing what happened to Alizee.
Shapiro delivers another gripping story in The Muralist.
Review: The Art Forger