‘The Muralist’: Historical Fiction and Art Appreciation in One Package

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  • Unknown-12The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books, November 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: At the cusp of WWII, a young French-American artist pursues her art as her family tries to escape Europe. Seventy-five years later, her great-niece works to solve the mystery of her disappearance and secure her place in the art world.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York and France
  • Time: 1939/40 and 2015
  • Read this for a gripping story filled with insights into the world of art and the machinations of the US government as the Jews of France sought to escape Nazi Europe.

RELEASE DATE – Tuesday, November 3. The Muralist, B.A. Shapiro’s second novel, brings together a young French-American artist with the luminaries of the fledgling Abstract Expressionist movement. In 1939, when the story begins, many soon-to-be-famous artists were working for the US government as part of the WPA project which commissioned realistic paintings and murals depicting life during the Depression. Alizée Benoit was born in America, leaving to live with relatives in France after the death of her parents when she was twelve. Seven years later she returns to advance her art career, aware that the situation in France for her Jewish family is becoming perilous. Her goal is to find a way to bring them all to the US, whatever it takes.

Alizée’s day job is drawing and painting murals intended for libraries, post offices and other civic buildings in a huge warehouse along with Lee Krasner and other artists. Their free hours are spent painting, drinking and arguing art and politics with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others in their group. Separated from his wife, Rothko takes particular interest in Alizée, both personally and professionally. Barely subsisting, the artists are often consumed by self-doubt, alcohol and depression, creating at times a toxic mix.

Seventy-five years later, Danielle Abrams is recasting her life assessing art work for a major auction house. Inspired by brief stories of her great-aunt, Alizée, and the two paintings of hers that survived, Danielle had been a painter before her divorce and held out hope she could solve Alizée’s disappearance in late 1940. When a group of paintings by the likes of Rothko and Pollock appear at work for evaluation with small related squares secreted on the back, Danielle sees hints of Alizée’s style and sets out to find out more.

Unknown-13 As Alizée struggles to acquire visas for her family she runs up against nativism and isolationism as typified by Lindbergh and Kennedy, and anti-Semitic and obstructionist policies in the State Department spearheaded by Breckinridge Long. Eleanor Roosevelt’s genuine interest in the WPA art projects serves to bring  Alizée a patron and ally. Throughout The Muralist, Alizée is receiving evermore frightening letters from her relatives in France describing the roundups and tightening restrictions on the Jews. Alizée keeps from her artist friends her activities to circumvent US visa restrictions and take down Breckinridge Long.

Danielle comes into her own as she works to establish the hidden squares as Alizée’s. As with many Holocaust survivors, her grandfather chose not to discuss his experiences before resettling in America. In pursuit of her quest, Danielle comes to terms with her family’s experience in France.

Shapiro is emphatic in the afternote that is this a work of fiction weaving in historical figures and situations consistent with the times, taking liberties to serve the story. It doesn’t purport to be a telling of history with fictional characters added.

The beauty of modern historical fiction is the research that authors put into framing the story. While historical accuracy may be sacrificed for the plot, one of the great benefits of these books is whetting the reader’s appetite to discover aspects of history or art which may be relatively unfamiliar. Having read The Muralist I learned that the Abstract Expressionist movement emerged from artists involved in the WPA artist project. (see http://www.theartstory.org/org-wpa.htm) Similarly, while it is now fairly well-known that tens of thousands of visas were unused annually during WWII, the name Breckinridge Long was unfamiliar. Two clicks on the web and his role becomes all too clear.

With this second novel, B.A. Shapiro is setting a high bar for others seeking to inform the reader about art world while telling a complex and well-structured story.  It is refreshing to see strong women artists as protagonists, well-drawn and wrestling with their imperfections and moral choices as they pursue their art in a male-dominated field. Her inclusion of historical events and figures moves the plot along and her clear acknowledgement of the liberties she takes with history are most welcome. The Muralist is a fine novel to share with a friend or in a group. Note: The Muralist tops the Indie Next List for November.




‘The Girl You Left Behind’ captures the evocative power of art

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  • Unknown-10The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin Books, 2012)
  • In 40 words or less: A portrait ties together two young women and their absent husbands. A thought-provoking story of love, art, ownership and restitution.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: France and London
  • Time: 1916 and Present
  • Read this for a classic story interwoven with contemporary issues of ownership, morality and the transformative power of art.

Jojo Moyes first made a splash on the US book scene in 2012 with her novel Me Before You. With a longstanding reputation in Great Britain, two additional titles were released here later in 2012, The Girl You Left Behind and its prequel novella, Honeymoon in Paris. Were it not for a book group requesting a discussion on The Girl You Left Behind, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Moyes immediately immerses the reader in the life of Sophie Lefèvre, a young woman struggling with her sister and brother to get by while the Germans occupy their French village in October 1916. Sophie, strong and independent, had lived in Paris, meeting her artist husband, Edouard, there while she was a shopgirl. When he left for the Army, she returned to the village to help her sister whose husband was goners well. The Germans commandeered almost everything, leaving the residents with little to eat and few possessions. The sisters’ inn, stripped of almost all furniture, was required to prepare and serve meals to the troops billeted in the town. While charged with preparing the food, the family, which included a baby and the daughter of a woman taken by the Germans, had to account for every morsel of food served.

The only item of value left in the home was a painting of Sophie by Edouard, an Impressionist. The portrait was imbued with all the love Edouard felt for his wife and served as a promise of their future together. The Kommandant was taken by the painting and was prepared to go to great lengths in the hope of acquiring it. And Sophie would put herself in great peril for the chance to reunite with Edouard.

The story shifts to present-day London where Liv Halston is a young widow, living in the Glass House designed by her late husband David, a renowned architect. Liv is frozen in her grief, the only softness in her life is the portrait David purchased for her while they honeymooned in Paris. A chance meeting with an ex-pat American involved in art restitution sets off a chain of events upending both their lives and demanding that the fate of the Lefèvres be known.

Don’t for a minute think this is merely a story of time-linked romances. Moyes presents the legal and emotional issues associated with art restitution, carefully facebook_placeholdermaking the Holocaust a minor player. By doing so the visceral attachment people have to art, as contrasted with its possible market value, is elevated. Moyes is acutely aware that most restitution claims arise from German confiscation of art owned by Jews and brings that into the story as a means of bringing moral gravitas to the debate about ownership and redress.

With carefully constructed plot twists, The Girl You Left Behind held my interest to final page. Moyes’s deft hand in tackling fundamental issues rises well above many popular novels.

The Marriage of Opposites – A Novel of 19th Century St. Thomas


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  • The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, August 2015)
  • IMG_2926In 40 words or less: The island of St. Thomas was far more than a magical paradise in the early 1800’s. Hoffman’s story of Camille Pissarro’s mother, her strengths, challenges, loves and unfulfilled dreams, are all a prelude to her son becoming an Impressionist great.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: St. Thomas and Paris
  • Time: 19th Century
  • Book Group Potential: The history and biographical material are ripe for discussion.

Tomorrow Alice Hoffman’s latest work of historical fiction hits the bookstores. What could be a better setting for The Marriage of Opposites than the magical island of St. Thomas? In the early 1800’s St. Thomas was a flourishing center of commerce for goods being shipped from Europe and Africa to the western hemisphere and back. Much of the merchant class are refugees exiled during the Inquisition.  And the earliest settlers of the island believe their people arrived on the island from the moon and continue to have a strong spiritual connection with the natural elements of the island.

Rachel Pomié is a young woman far ahead of her time. She has a strong sense of business, encouraged in her thinking by her father. Disinterested in the ladylike niceties followed by her mother and the other women in the small Jewish community, Rachel spends her free time with the daughter of the family’s housekeeper.  She appreciates and understands the customs and stories of the island’s natives.

Marriage in the community is strictly governed, often to enhance business opportunities.  And in families with no male heirs these arrangements are of particular important. In order to save her father’s business, Rachel is betrothed to widower with three young children. While not a love match they develop a partnership ended by his death. Rachel and her growing family are then at the mercy of her husband’s young nephew, Frédéric, who comes from France to manage the business inherited by his family.  And Rachel finds the true love of her life.

Hoffman is well-known for bringing elements of the magical into her stories. The spirit world enters into the lives of both island natives and those that see themselves above such superstitions. Rachel is not above seeking out local healers to help save the lives of those she loves.

Were The Marriage of Opposites entirely fiction it would be an interesting story.  But it’s not. Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro and her family really did exist. And as the latter part of the novel shifts to the story of Rachel’s youngest child, Camille, we learn about the life of the boy who Camille Pissarro, one of France’s greatest Impressionist painters. Camille was taken with the colors and sounds of his birthplace though wanted to leave for Paris from a young age.  Paris was always his mother’s dream, though never within reach.

Hoffman includes an afterword detailing the factual and fictional elements of the  novel.  Whether you are attracted to historical fiction in exotic settings, stories of strong women tested by the times or the back stories of well-known people, there will be something for you in The Marriage of Opposites. Certainly, Alice Hoffman fans won’t want to miss it.


Ellen in Wonderland – Day 1

imageIt doesn’t get much better than this.  Having arrived in New York midday, I set out to explore Chelsea and the Flatiron imageDistrict, the neighborhoods around my hotel. Timing being everything, Madisonimage Square is having a monthlong festival Mad. Sq. Eats bringing a pop-up food truck and cafe area to the vibrancy of Madison Square Park.  Add that to the amazing art installation for a terrific afternoon.  There was even time for knitting in the park.

Just across the street is Eataly, the enormous new Italian market/food hall/ destination. image Everywhere you look there is another amazing counter.  Me, I am always partial to a beautiful produce or fish display.  I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

My evening plans were extra-special.  Over the last few years I’ve had several opportunities to reconnect with childhood friends and fellow New Rochelle High School classmates.  Tonight three of us had a dinner/theatre evening.  Thanks to my daughter, Miriam, we snagged tickets for Hand to God, a provocative and very well-acted play.  Meri, Debbie and I had a blast.image  And I had the chance to introduce my daughter to these lovely women – priceless!

Tomorrow starts the main event – Book Expo America.  And I can’t wait!

Exploring New Orleans

IMG_2324The final event in my month-long birthday celebration was a trip to New Orleans. It’s been on my list for years but I had never been there before. If you were one of those telling me I’d love it, you were right! From the moment we arrived it was one discovery after another. December is rarely a top travel choice unless a beach or ski resort is involved, but for my money this is the perfect time to head to New Orleans. A city that parties day in and day out glows even brighter before Christmas and with the early darkness the amazing decorations in city that REALLY gets decked out are visible everywhere! And the weather was terrific. Warm days and cool evenings and not a drop of rain. I was happy to miss the infamous heat and humidity.

So, what was most memorable? Continue reading Exploring New Orleans