IN A NUTSHELL
- The 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.
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.