Tag Archives: art

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).

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            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

The Author

The Author

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Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction

Book Review: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).

art forger

                We’re all a little guilty, aren’t we?  We’ve all told a little white lie… or ten.  “Yes, I absolutely love your new haircut.”  “This new recipe tastes yummy”(quick, spit it out in your napkin while no one’s looking).  “I read all of War and Peace last year for my book club.”  There are white lies that do not matter in the scheme of life, but then there are big lies and even bigger deceptions that matter a great deal.

In B.A. Shapiro’s taut and intriguing novel The Art Forger, Clair Roth knows all about lies and deceptions.

Scandal has tarnished the reputation of this once-promising young artist.  When her married lover, Isaac Cullion, experienced a creative rough patch, Clair offered to be his muse.  Clair did more than just help Isaac, though, she painted a masterpiece that went on to earn great acclaim.  But it was Isaac’s name on the piece, not Clair’s.   After their breakup, Clair went public; few believed her, especially after the painting underwent testing to determine its authenticity.  The so-called experts declared it Isaac’s work, casting Clair as the jealous, untalented, and crazy ex.

Barbara Shapiro

Barbara Shapiro

Dejected but strapped with bills, Clair is forced to take a job at reproductions.com as a professional art forger who specializes in the work of Edgar Degas.  She is very good at what she does, maybe even too good.  Yet her own talent goes unnoticed.  Still, she continues to paint her own pieces and hopes to get the recognition she deserves.  Meanwhile, art lovers clamor for her Degas copies, even asking for Clair by name.

One day, the very dashing, debonair, and filthy rich gallery owner, Aidan Markel stops by Clair’s studio.  The two strike a Faustian bargain: Clair agrees to forge a Degas for Markel and he will give her a one-woman show in his gallery.  For Clair, it sounds too good to be true.  Sure enough, it is.  Markel’s Degas was stolen AND he intends to sell the forgery as the real thing AND then he wants to return the original.

Aidan knows just how to convince Clair: “The seller gets his money, and the collector gets what he believes is a Degas, at least until he finds out the truth in the press, and then it will be too late.  You and I get to feel really good about ourselves.  Not to mention, your own work gets the exposure it deserves.”  Just in case Claire is wavering, Aidan goes in for the kill: “This is the opportunity of a lifetime for you….”

Standing in front of the painting, Clair cannot take her eyes from the painting; the Degas captivates and obsesses her.  She agrees.

For Clair, forging a real Degas is a challenge.  Initially, morality is not an issue for Clair; instead, she wonders if she is really good enough to pull off this art caper.  In an interesting twist, Clair convinces herself she and Aiden are actually saving the painting.  She will do it, although her conscience nags at her.  “What is illegal and what is illegal?” she asks herself.

In her efforts to recreate the stolen Degas, Clair stumbles onto a mystery.  Is the painting an authentic Degas?  Or is it a forgery?

Clair peels away layer upon layer of lies and deceptions in the same way she strips a canvas, layer by layer, bare.  The Art Forger is a voyage of self-discovery for Clair, as it allows her to recapture her own authenticity.  She forges a new path and is no longer herself a forgery.

Part mystery, part art history, and part morality tale, The Art Forger is plot-driven and tense.  Shapiro merges fact with fiction so well that it is sometimes difficult to separate the author’s imagination from the historical record.

Shapiro conducted meticulous and extensive research for The Art Forger and it shows.  The heist described in the story actually happened in 1990, when several valuable works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Degas painting, After the Bath, does not exist; it is a figment of Shapiro’s imagination.  Isabella Stewart Gardner, the owner of the fictional painting and founder of the museum where the real robbery occurred, is real.  Through a series of fictional letters, Shapiro effectively brings Gardner, who traveled through Europe extensively collecting paintings, to life.  Although no evidence exists that Gardner ever met Degas, Shapiro concedes the two traveled the same circles.  Their relationship is fabricated but makes for interesting reading.

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner

If you love art history or even appreciate a good mystery, then The Art Forger belongs on your nightstand.  Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from the story, though, was not the who-done-it but what Shapiro can teach us about our own authenticity and originality.  The Art Forger definitely begs discussion.

You’re sure to love the novel every bit as much as I did, and that’s no lie.

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Filed under books, fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery, She Reads, women's lit