Several years ago, Barbara Shapiro almost gave up writing. After authoring five murder and paranormal mystery novels, she was having trouble attracting the interest of publishers with her sixth — a thriller Shapiro describes as very by-the-book. As a last-ditch effort, she began writing a story she’d been mulling over for more than 20 years: the tale of Claire Roth, a 30-something art school grad turned art forger embroiled in a plot to reproduce a famous Degas painting stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Last Sunday the resulting novel, The Art Forger, landed Shapiro a spot on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. As part of a multi-city tour underwritten by her publisher, Algonquin, she alights in Tampa this week; on Thursday at 7 p.m., I’ll do a public Q&A with her at Hyde Park indy gem Inkwood Books before she signs copies of the book. The novel’s unexpected success — even Hollywood has called about turning The Art Forger into a movie — has her reeling.
“It’s an overused word,” Shapiro says, but the experience has been “surreal.”
Adding to the dreamlike effect is the way Shapiro’s reversal of fortunes faintly echoes her protagonist’s. While a graduate student at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Claire creates a painting that makes its way into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but under the name of her much older lover and mentor Isaac Cullion. When their romance goes awry, Claire claims authorship of the painting — a claim MoMA discredits, in effect blacklisting the young artist and prompting her to take a demeaning job making high-end copies of famous paintings for reproductions.com. When the owner of Boston’s poshest gallery deigns to visit her studio for the first time in years, it’s with a double-edged offer: a $50,000 (felonious) gig to recreate an iconic, stolen Degas and an opportunity to recoup her reputation with a one-woman show of original work.
Three hundred pages later, Claire gets her solo show — complete with fawning press coverage and a trendy new haircut — but not without having all of her convictions about authenticity, value and accomplishment called into question along the way.
“I knew the struggling Claire and the frustrated Claire,” Shapiro says. “I was imagining what it would be like to have some success. Now with this book, I find myself asking the same questions. Am I good enough? Is it real?”
Those qualities make Claire an easy character to relate to. At first repulsed by the offer, she soon buys into the gallerist’s ethically dubious — and ultimately duplicitous — plan to swap the forgery for the original Degas on the black market and return the stolen painting to the Gardner for the first time since 1990. (The real heist provides a factual historical backdrop for the novel’s fictional and semi-fictional characters and events.) Complications ensue as Claire discovers with her eagle eye that the “original” painting is a copy itself, reproduced sans a certain model during museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner’s lifetime to conceal her decision to pose nude for Degas, a bit of late-19th-century intrigue revealed through fictional correspondence interspersed between chapters set in the present.
Vowing to set things right, Claire dedicates herself to making a perfect copy of the stolen painting. (Shapiro’s detailed description of how she goes about doing it, including baking the painting in a commercial oven to achieve the crackled surface of age, is one of the book’s most impressive achievements.) The plan falls apart in unpredictable and ironic ways — Claire’s copy is so good that when the FBI confiscates it en route to India and returns it to the Gardner, the museum authenticates it as the original — leading the heroine to dig herself deeper into a time-spanning puzzle of fraud that she eventually solves. Not, however, without breaking a few laws.
Stepping outside the straight mystery genre gave Shapiro a chance to make her characters, especially Claire, more complex.
“I wanted to create somebody who did the wrong things for the right reasons,” she says.
Publishers initially questioned whether the book was too much between genres — not quite a thriller, not quite a romance, not quite chick lit — until Algonquin bit. (At the suggestion of marketers, Shapiro abbreviated her first name to B.A. to distance herself from her mystery writing.) Now, Shapiro seems to have found her niche. Her next novel also fuses art, history and suspense, conjuring an imaginary member of the Abstract Expressionist circle of artists in New York before World War II — an American-born painter who must help her Jewish family escape from France before the Nazi occupation.
For now she’ll wait and see what happens with The Art Forger and maybe just enjoy that sweet spot on the Times bestseller list between moments at the keyboard.
“Early on when I started doing this, I had dreams of making the Times bestseller list,” Shapiro says. “I saw that was a wild dream that didn’t really happen to people, and I stopped thinking about it. When I was writing this book, I just wanted it to get published.
“Now I can continue to be a writer for the rest of my life.”
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