Club Selection for March 2016
Pages: 352/ Audio: 9 hrs and 9 mins
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?
Novel Gobblers Perspective
Carol's Rating: ★★★
This was an intriguing book that entwines the lives of historical figures with fictional charters in a cleverly crafted story. Rich in historic detail, it traces specific events in two lives; Danielle, an art assistant at Christie's Gallery NYC in 2015 and Alizee, Danielle's great-aunt that suddenly disappeared while working as a young artist for the Works Progress Administration at the brink of WWII in the late 1930's.
I learned a great deal from this book; mainly about Roosevelt's WPA program and the beginning of abstract impressionist art and artists, which I knew close to nothing about. I was inspired to seek out images of the art and artists and to bake some delightful, delicious Pain d'Amande for my book club friends. It took me a few chapters to really get into the book but once I did, I was eager to continue reading at any free moment. Even though I didn't love this book as much as I hoped to, I still enjoyed it.
My thoughts are often drawn back into the story as I ponder the desperation felt by families trying to bring their loved ones to America before the war broke out. Given our current political climate, it sadly occurs to me that some things never seem to change. I am reminded of the poem written by Martin Niemoller that Malala Yousafzai states her father kept tucked inside his pocket:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Catherine's Rating: ★★★
Intriguing beginning but it seems like the author didn't know where to go with it and how to end it. There wasn't a great flow between the present and the past. The art and the Works Project Administration historical bits are interesting. The ending was rushed, not plausible, and just left one a bit disappointed.
About the Author
B.A. Shapiro is the award winning, NYT bestselling author
of THE MURALIST and THE ART FORGER, both stories of art, mystery and history with a bit of romance thrown in.
She's also written five suspense novels -- THE SAFE ROOM, BLIND SPOT, SEE NO EVIL, BLAMELESS and SHATTERED ECHOES -- four screenplays and the nonfiction book, THE BIG SQUEEZE.
In her previous career incarnations, she directed research projects for a residential substance abuse facility, worked as a systems analyst/statistician, headed the Boston office of a software development firm, and served as an adjunct professor teaching sociology at Tufts University and creative writing at Northeastern University.
She began her writing career when she quit her high-pressure job after the birth of her second child. Nervous about what to do next, she said to her mother, "If I'm not playing at being superwoman anymore, I don't know who I am." Her mother answered with the question: "If you had one year to live, how would you want to spend it?" The answer: write a novel and spend more time with her children. And that's exactly what she did. Smart mother.
After writing seven novels and raising her children, she now lives in Boston with her husband Dan and her dog Sagan. And yes, she's working on yet another novel but has no plans to raise any more children.
Art, Interviews, Quotes, & More
These cookies were delicious. Alizee spoke of them in her story and I couldn't wait to try them. They are now one of my favorites!
Catherine, one of our members, attended Ogden High School, known as "The Million Dollar School".
"I went to Ogden High School in Ogden, Utah. It was the first high school in the nation to cost over a million dollars. It was built as a Works Project Administration project during the depression -- meant to put people to work and stimulate the economy. Even though the school was 50 years old when I attended it, it was still beautiful -- maple chairs with real leather upholstery in the auditorium, with gold leaf decorations on the walls & ceiling; marble in the hallways; an attractive art deco exterior. We were proud to attend such a classy school. Now another 25+ years has passed and the school is still beautiful and in full use. It is too bad that more schools aren't built with quality materials to last for 80+ years."
1. Did you like how the author placed historical figures into the fictional characters lives?
2. Having read The Muralist, would you like to read other books written by B.A. Shapiro? Why or why not?
3. What is something new that you learned from reading this book?
4. What is the first thought that comes to mind when you think about this book?
5. Give two words that you would use to describe this book?
6. What did you think of the ending?
7. What was your overall "take away" from this book?
1. The Muralist exposes many facts about the situation in the United States before World War II, including the denial of visas to qualified refugees, the majority of the country’s opposition to entering the war, and the open discrimination against Jews. Did you find any of this surprising? In the wake of the Allies’ victory, how has history generally portrayed this prewar period in America? Do you think there are parallels to the United States in the twenty-first century?
2. The issue of refugees running from war and oppression is as current today as it was during World War II. What similarities and differences to do you see between nations’ responses today and those before World War II? What about in attitudes among U.S. citizens?
3. The author places Alizée, a fictional character, among the real-life artists who created the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York in the 1940s. How did living there at that time inform their art? What do you think makes Abstract Expressionism a quintessential American form?
4. Alizée and her friends are employed by the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program funded by the government to give work to artists. Do you think a government program like this could happen in today’s political climate? How are art and artists valued or supported differently in today's society?
5. In what ways might artistic talent and mental illness be linked? Did you see manifestations of a link in Alizée? How did that differ from the portrayals of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko?
6. Alizée wants to believe that art can change the world. Does art have the power to affect history? What are some examples that illustrate the transforming power of art?
7. Alizée does something illegal in the hopes of thwarting a greater wrong. Do you agree with what she does? Are there times when such decisions are justifiable? What was her state of mind when she made the decision?
8. How much do the times in which you live affect your individual life choices? How might Alizée’s life have been different if she had lived in the twenty-first century? Would her artistic dreams have been realized? How does Alizée’s artistic life compare with that of her grandniece Danielle?
9. When Danielle finds out the truth about what happened to her aunt, she seems able to become the artist she was meant to be. Why? Which was more important: finding the answer, or asking the question in the first place?
10. Were you surprised at how Alizée’s life turned out? Relieved? How do you think Alizée felt about it? How did her art define her life, even amid drastic change?