Book review: An object of beauty by Steve Martin
An Object of Beauty BY Steve Martin Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £16.99
Reading the description of Steve Martin's newest novel, An Object of Beauty, I joked to a friend: "Beautiful female art dealer on the rise, until her glittering future is jeopardised by a devastating secret from her past - why that's identical to the plot of the newest Barbara Taylor Bradford!"
It seemed funny at the time, then prophetic, the deeper I delved. Had I read this novel without knowing who wrote it, I would have expected it to be packaged in a pastel-coloured cover sporting an image of a sexy babe toying with an auctioneer's gavel. While Object is not officially "chick lit", since the subject is the Manhattan art scene rather than snaring a mate, it does share the light, bright, breeziness so characteristic of that genre. Brand names litter every page, and actual art-world celebrities enter the action, so on the whole, it's a very glitzy affair.
Object clearly owes an inspirational debt to both The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany's, proving that Martin's good taste in literature rivals his good taste in art. A collector himself, he drew upon his personal knowledge of the scene - and his curiosity about the baroque way in which it operates - to confect this behind-the-scenes tale of auction houses, gallery owners, and the collectors themselves.
Someone had the clever idea to include pictures of the artwork in question, which is a huge help, and makes the book rather beautiful in and of itself.
Martin's narrator is Daniel Franks, who, like Gatsby's Nick Carraway, finds his fascination with a baffling creature who's not altogether on the up and up - gorgeous charismatic, ruthless Lacey Yeager, a friend from university - brings with it some dangerous consequences.
Franks warns that he may not be the most reliable of narrators: "I will tell you (Lacey's] story from my own recollections, from conversations I conducted with those around her, and, alas, from gossip. . . If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that - just as in real life - imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience."
In other words, anything goes, and Martin tells the story, which ranges from 1993 to the present, from multiple perspectives, always returning to Daniel, an art critic whose career has nothing like the trajectory of Lacey's, because he's too much of a milksop. At uni Daniel had sex with Lacey "exactly once".This immunised him to her charms (without destroying his ability to record them), but he's unable to find love with anyone else.
Lacey's critical turning point comes while toiling away in the basement of Sotheby's auction house, when "her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value".
Determined to get ahead, she does something - just what isn't made clear until the book's close - that nets her hundreds of thousands of dollars. She uses the windfall to buy a flat and begin speculating in the art market. She's a quick study, and blessed with a good eye, so on the whole, her investments are sound and reap her rewards, but her real achievements lie in the way she manipulates the men in her life sexually and professionally (and sometimes both at once) to advance herself around the board.
By the turn of the century she's about to open her own gallery, but the events of September 11 and the art market crash that followed mean she nearly loses her shirt. The last third of the book describes how she recovers - only to be "double dipped" by the next even more dramatic global recession.
As a story, this is a perfectly serviceable, racy potboiler. Where Martin excels is in his accurate, but not belaboured, descriptions of the art world and the often hilariously obfuscating art jargon used by those in the know. He excels as well in his gently mocking caricatures of dealers and their clients.
There are few outright laughs, but much to smile about, such as his observation: "'In dialogue' was a new phrase that art writers could no longer live without. It meant that hanging two works next to or opposite each other produced a third thing, a dialogue, and that we were now all the better for it. I suppose the old phrase would have been 'an art show,' but now we were listening."
There's an entertaining set piece dissecting the various art movements, and a lucid description of exactly how the art market shifted around the island of Manhattan during the last days of the 20th century.
All in all, An Object of Beauty is a compelling romp, featuring a heroine you'll love to hate, and offering a realistic and even-handed glimpse of the machinations of the art world's high rollers.
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