I tend to shy away from World War II novels. They seem to be in vogue lately and I thought I had read my fill. But I have a long love affair with art and art history and Barbara Shapiro’s wonderful new book, The Muralist (November 2015), wove into the pre-war period the genesis of the first truly American art movement, as well as vivid portrayals of some of the twentieth century’s most inspired artists.
After losing her parents in an accident, young Alizée Benoit leaves France and takes up residence in New York. She finds work with Roosevelt’s WPA program painting murals for public institutions. There she falls in with a group of artists who will go on to become the founding masters of the Abstract Expressionist movement—Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning.
Alizée’s desire to secure visas for her remaining family in France before the Germans arrive drives much of the tension. In desperation, she joins an activist group and crosses powerful men determined to limit the number of European refugees allowed into the country. Suddenly, she goes missing.
A second story is set in present day. Danielle Abrams, Alizée’s great-niece, is a cataloger at Christie’s Auction House and believes she has stumbled upon lost paintings that her aunt created decades ago. Convincing the art world is no easy matter, but she is determined to do just that while unraveling the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance.
The plot skillfully incorporates historical events through the POV of multiple narrators—Krasner, Rothko, Danielle, Alizée, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, who takes an interest in both the work of young Alizée and her situation. I remember the first time the art world cracked open for me and I understood what abstract artists were trying to communicate. Shapiro handles this episode with Mrs. Roosevelt brilliantly.
From the author of The Art Forger, The Muralist is an original and vivid look at the power of art to change the course of history. Readers with a passion for historical fiction will enjoy it. A great book club read.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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