B. A. Shapiro makes the radical, varied, and sometimes enigmatic world of abstract expressionism altogether human and accessible in her smart new historical thriller. The novel investigates the mysterious life of Alizée Benoit, a fictional painter who hobnobbed with the likes of Pollock, de Kooning, Krasner, and Rothko.
At the novel's outset, our protagonist is a striving, starving artist in New York on the cusp of being discovered. By day, she works for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration creating murals, and by night, she paints in her cold-water flat. She encounters Eleanor Roosevelt at a work site, and the first lady becomes an early patron.
Overseas, Hitler's snare is drawing ever tighter around European Jews, including Alizée's aunt and family in France. This aunt had taken her in after Alizée's parents were killed in a laboratory accident. Alizée still mourns her parents, and that grief, along with her already substantial bonds of kinship, elevates her need to rescue her remaining family into a sort of monomania.
Alizée contacts every government official she can but to no avail. In her panic and despair, she involves herself in a conspiracy. And then she vanishes.
The story is told from various perspectives but primarily darts back and forth between two narrative strands: one contemporary, told by Danielle Abrams, Alizée's grandniece who works at Christie's and ends up trying to sort out the mystery of the disappearance; and one historical, told from the perspective of Alizée.
I found myself swept up in Alizée's rush to set things right before the onslaught of world war. The tale was reminiscent, in the best way, of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,'' and the way that novel considered artists — both the great power of their grand statements and the often heartbreaking futility of same.
Populated by real artists and political figures, set among the tectonic movements of history, a novel like "The Muralist'' would be a risky venture for any author: How much should you expect the reader to know? One false move with exposition and you either alienate or bore.
To her credit Shapiro handles education deftly: Alizée's challenges feel immediate because they are hers, not because the author needs to teach us a thing or two about art or the Holocaust or the New Deal.
Alizée's family in France feels indistinct here, however. We know her relatives only through the letters they send. These are plaintive but do little to signify the authors. I hungered for characterizing details beyond pain d'amande and the titles of books the uncle taught his undergraduates. I wanted to see these people as individuals, instead of Relatives in Trouble.
I also had some trouble keeping track of who was who, and I wondered why the author decided on five hazily sketched characters instead of one or two boldly drawn. Another skewed element is anachronistic dialogue in Alizée's sections. Did they say "worked my butt off'' in the '30s?
But perhaps the author made the right choice in not exhaustively authenticating every scrap of dialogue, which might have made it seem fussy and surely would have slowed the breakneck pace of the narrative. And the story does rip right along. The prose is economical without feeling clipped, expressive without interfering with the rush of narrative. As Alizée becomes frantic and paranoid in later pages, the language, too, becomes frenzied.
This novel belongs to the "brainy thriller" subgenre, in the vein of Dan Brown and Michael Crichton's work. But it has more emotional ballast and is more skillfully written than what one customarily finds.
Alizée and Danielle's attempts to recover their family are affecting. The novel evokes the horror and sorrow of the Holocaust in just their tedious administrative tasks of retracing steps, of sifting through wreckage. Shapiro also does a wonderful job of restoring complexity to the historical moment and stripping away the clarity of retrospection. One cannot help but think of the current refugee crisis and the condition and degree of our national obligation. Such is the value of good fiction.
By B. A. Shapiro
Algonquin, 352 pp., $26.95
Ted Kehoe's fiction has appeared in Epoch, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, and other magazines. He teaches writing at Boston University.