You made me read it: The Art Forger

B. A. Shapiro, The Art Forger (2012)

For my blog anniversary this year, I celebrated with a Make Me Read It giveaway, meaning the winner got to select a book from my TBR pile for both of us to read. Congratulations to R-J, who chose to receive a copy of The Art Forger, which I sent for her reading pleasure. I then promptly misplaced my own copy, but fortunately the ebook was available from the library, and I could read it in a timely fashion. Thanks, R-J, for helping me knock one more book off the pile!

The Art Forger plays off the real-life theft of thirteen works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, a horrendous crime that has never been solved. To the actual facts of the case, it adds an imaginary work by Degas which is brought to a young, struggling artist to copy. The dealer who brings it (claiming he knows nothing about the rest of the stolen goods) suggests that this will enable the original to be returned to the museum; despite the shadiness of the deal, Claire is unable to resist the temptation to live with and paint a real Degas. Except that once she starts working, she begins to have some suspicions that all is not as it seems…

Claire has a backstory involving a past boyfriend and another dubiously attributed work of art, which is gradually revealed in flashbacks from the main narrative. She can’t get out of the shadow of this disaster and have her own work recognized, another reason she’s lured into a deal that from the reader’s vantage point seems like a really, really bad idea, not to mention another terrible relationship. A series of imaginary letters from Isabella Gardner further thickens the plot, and Claire must also unravel an unexpected mystery there.

While I was intrigued by the connection to the heist and to the art world of Boston, I found The Art Forger to be somewhat plodding in its style and not very visually stimulating. It’s not easy to write about visual art, especially contemporary art, whose appeal most often eludes me, and Shapiro’s descriptions of Claire’s “amazing” paintings of windows (???) did not convince me. The letters allegedly by “Belle” also didn’t quite ring true, though I’ve not read any of her few existing letters for comparison. I found the subplot they involved to be silly at best and at worst insulting to the historical figures involved. It’s also not easy to combine fact and fiction in this way, and Shapiro’s characters mostly fell flat for me.

So, although there was enough suspense to keep me turning the pages, I found this a forgettable diversion, not holding a candle to my very favorite novel about art and forgery, What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. Some other fiction about art and artists I’ve enjoyed are The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.

Did you read The Art Forger? How do you think it measures up to other books about the art world? Or do you have other favorites in this field to recommend?


18 thoughts on “You made me read it: The Art Forger

  1. Ah bummer! Sorry this was a bit of a miss for you. I totally agree that artwork needs to be explained just right. I read a book last year that focused on a girls drawings. I can’t remember what the title was… but the author kept trying to explain how lovely they were, but the descriptions were just falling flat for me.


    1. It’s really not easy to describe visual art. That’s why I’m so impressed at certain writers who manage to capture something of its essence.


  2. I didn’t love The Art Forger, though I usually do love books about art. But this one was just an okay read for me. If What’s Bred in the Bone is better, than I definitely want to give that one a try. 🙂


  3. I also have trouble often “seeing” visual art depicted in novels. So I haven’t read many books along those lines. I did really like like you, however, Girl with a Pearl Earring.


    1. I was a bit hesitant to read it (books about real people are hit and miss for me) but I did like it, and went on to read everything else by Tracy Chevalier.


  4. This reminds me a bit of The Map Thief. It deals with valuable maps rather than art, as you might guess from the title, but as a book also about the heist of a valuable object I think it might appeal to people interested in this book too 🙂


  5. I’m with you on this one–it was okay. The thing I enjoyed most was that I read the book after visiting the Isabella Gardner museum in Boston (where you get in free if your name is Isabella).


    1. And I want to visit the Gardner again now myself, but haven’t gotten around to it this winter. Soon I hope!

      Another book set around the museum is Murder at the Gardner, by jane Langton. I preferred that one.


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