Review: The Muralist, by B.A. Shapiro
Sadly, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I would. I picked it up due to my friend Jan’s recommendation, and her recommendations are usually spot-on for me.
It is a fascinating story- an artist, Danielle, goes searching for her family history, including that of her great-aunt Alizée Benoit, a WPA artist who disappeared after the war. However, what kept me reading, more than the weaving in of prominent historical figures, was the way Danielle’s personality (and that of her family) operated at so many different levels; Aunt Alizée, for example, was mature enough to interrupt a meeting between Eleanor Roosevelt and the owners of the WPA project she is working on, with a goal of getting the current work of her and her contemporaries (the founders, pretty much, of abstract expressionism) included in WPA projects and exhibitions, despite the rule that all WPA art had to be representational rather than abstract. In other areas of her life, Alizée has trouble being quite so forthright. She is also a bit naive regarding getting her relatives out of what is becoming Vichy France. Even as officials are telling her, one after another, that she will not be able to obtain the needed visas, she still keeps attempting the same methods to try and rescue her family, much the way Danielle keeps searching for her great-aunt despite being thwarted at every turn.
It’s not a bad book, and it’s possible that it was just a bit triggery for me – a Russian/Roumanian/Galician Jew whose ancestors emigrated to America in the lead-up years to World War II. It is definitely worth reading, not least for the way real historical figures are woven into the story (the one thing from the times she seems to have missed is the story about Marc Chagall locking his paintings into a Paris attic before evacuating during the war and expecting to find them still there when he went back after the war (they were stolen while he was gone, in fact), but for the multiple layers of maturity Shapiro’s characters show as they move through their lives. These are complex people, with many fears, motivations, and agendas, and that is what kept me reading through a book I might otherwise have put down.