The Muralist

The Muralist

by B.A. Shapiro

Overview: When Alizée Benoit, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), vanishes in New York City in 1940, no one knows what happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her arts patron and political compatriot, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not her close-knit group of friends and fellow WPA painters, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. And, some seventy years later, not her great-niece, Danielle Abrams, who, while working at Christie’s auction house, uncovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind works by those now famous Abstract Expressionist artists. Do they hold answers to the questions surrounding her missing aunt?

Entwining the lives of both historical and fictional characters, and moving between the past and the present, The Muralist plunges readers into the divisiveness of prewar politics and the largely forgotten plight of European refugees refused entrance to the United States. It captures both the inner workings of New York’s art scene and the beginnings of the vibrant and quintessentially American school of Abstract Expressionism.

As she did in her bestselling novel The Art Forger, B. A. Shapiro tells a gripping story while exploring provocative themes. In Alizée and Danielle she has created two unforgettable women, artists both, who compel us to ask: What happens when luminous talent collides with unstoppable historical forces? Does great art have the power to change the world?

Judy Stanton (05/02/16): Little to add to Gail and Debbie's reviews, only they have motivated me to read The Art Forger. I liked this book a lot, thought it was well written and a good, pretty quick read. It was interesting to read of an age when the First Lady actually was accessible to the public. One reads of the US not being willing to get into the war and not accepting refugees, but Alizee's story personalizes it and makes you feel the absolute frustration about not being able to help family abroad that desperately needed visas to get out. I liked the author's post script that indicated what was true and what was fiction. 3+
Rating: ***+

Debbie Weiss (04/04/16): I completely agree with Gail's review of this book. I was really looking forward to reading it because I totally enjoyed B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger. This book was definitely not as good.

However, the premise of the story is interesting. Danielle is a modern-day art historian at Christie's. She has always wondered what happened to her great Aunt Alizee, who just seemed to disappear off the face of the earth in the 1940's. Dani makes it her mission to find out the details of the mysterious disappearance. Thus, we learn the back story of Alizee, who was an artist who worked for the WPA in the late 1930's and early 1940's. She hung around with the likes of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and had a romatic relationship with Mark Rothko

While books of historical fiction can take many liberties, some of the relationships in this book just seem highly unlikely and a bit of a stretch. An example of such a relationship is Alizee's "friendship" with Eleanore Roosevelt, who never liked abstract art until she met Alizee.

I did learn a lot, though. I didn't realize that artists were part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and I felt as though I got to know and understand these later-to-be-famous artists. I learned about the antisemitism that existed inside our government at that time --- and how visas were routinely denied to European Jews who were desperate to escape to our country. The xenophobia of that time certainly reminds me of the refugee crisis that exists today. History has a way of repeating itself.

While not on par with The Art Forger, still an interesting read.
Rating: ***+

Gail Reid (04/03/16): Like many recent works of historical fiction, The Muralist ties together two related stories from different time periods. It recounts the story of Alizee Benoit, a young, Jewish, French-American artist working for the WPA in the late 1930's. She's part of the early Abstract Expressionist movement and pals around with other unknowns such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Lee Krasner who would rise to be giants in the art world.

In Europe, Alizee's family is desperately trying to escape the Nazis; while she works fruitlessly to get them visas and joins underground committees to bring as many refugees as possible to the United States. Alizee disappears in 1940 and is never heard from again.

Intermingled with this narrative is the modern-day story of Danielle, an art historian at Christie's and the great niece of Alizee, who hopes to authenticate some mysterious canvases that surface on long-lost pieces from the WPA era. She suspects that the paintings stylistically match the work of her great aunt.

I found this to be an interesting read for several reasons: the emergence of the abstract expressionist community in New York during the 30's and 40's; the WPA art movement supported by Eleanor Roosevelt; and the anguish and futility of Americans trying to extricate family from Hitler's grasp. The convergence of the modern day story in 2015 with what took place in the 1940's is strongest at the end and the author manages to tie the story up well and with emotion. But unlike other works of historical fiction, I thought this one stretched believability. Alizee's interactions with Eleanor Roosevelt and the anti-Semitic government official, while making for a good story, challenged credibility.

I can honestly say B.A. Shapiro's "The Art Forger" was a more engaging read and in my opinion better written. 3+
Rating: ***+

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