I have to say, I was rather disappointed with this one. I really enjoyed Shapiro’s novel The Art Forger – it wasn’t perfect, but it had me hooked, and it was entertaining, and I wanted to see what would happen. While The Muralist wasn’t as gripping, I also enjoyed it – of course, a historical fiction novel isn’t going to be quite as much of a page turner as a heist thriller.
In this novel, Shapiro tries to merge the two, and it makes for a weaker story. I actually quite enjoyed the first third to a half, but then it started getting tedious and rather than rooting for the main character, I was just rolling my eyes and shaking my head at her really weird thought process. I mean, I guess she was trying to redeem herself which leads to clouded judgement, but also, super dumb decisions.
The novel follows three time lines, though the main time line begins in 1922 when Paulien becomes Vivienne. The novel introduces Paulien in Paris after she has been sent away from her Belgian family – while it takes Paulien a bit longer to realize it, her fiance was a con artist, and had used Paulien to get access to her family and her father’s business contacts. Paulien still thinks it’s the fault of a banker when she arrives in Paris, only to realize that George had played her and ruined her family. As a result, she changes her name, and eventually finds an opportunity to work as a translator for American millionaire Edwin Bradley who wants to use his fortune to open a museum in Philadelphia devoted to the Post-impressionists.
Interspersed are letters to a deceased Edwin as Vivienne narrates her trial for his murder to him, and chapters detailing the initial development of George and Paulien’s relationship starting in 1920.
The thing is I actually quite enjoyed Vivienne’s time in Paris with Bradley as they explored the art scene and rubbed elbows with historical figures like Gertrude Stein and Henri Matisse. The problem is that instead of using Paulien’s fall to tell the story of the 1920s art world, and show how Vivienne remade herself, Vivienne can’t let go of the past, and becomes obsessed with seven paintings that are now a part of Bradley’s collection and once belonged to her family. She becomes manipulative, using her experience from being a mark herself, to guide some of Bradley’s decisions. And all of this would have been a lot more interesting or entertaining if her plan had made any real sense rather than feeling like the dream of naive 18 year old girl which Vivienne clearly was not anymore. And it also just dragged because even with a looming murder trial, it didn’t feel like there was that much tension to her half-assed plans of art theft.
I mean, it wasn’t all bad, but it doesn’t match the excitement of The Art Forger and the pull of the historical aspects of the novel lose steam about half way through as Vivienne becomes a questionable character rather than someone to root for. The parts about the art and Paris are enjoyable (though not entirely accurate as explained in the afterword due to some timeline decisions for sake of plot) – and it’s not like the description doesn’t state that Vivienne will try to “recover her father’s art collection” but I guess I thought it would be more from a position of power than by planning to betray a friend and supporter.