The short: 3/5 ✦. A somewhat bland fictional story taking place during a fascinating historical era.
Just like The Explorers Guild, this book came across my radar as it was advertised in Entertainment Weekly – maybe I should stop taking its recommendations. The Muralist isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not great, either.
I love historical fiction because I love history, but it does sometimes make it difficult to differentiate between what the author made up or what is simply strange but true. Shapiro’s afterword provided the necessary information on that front, luckily. Basically, it’s the fictional story of one of the first US Abstract Expressionists, Alizée Benoit, and her soon-to-be famous friends (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner, etc.). Benoit didn’t exist, but her troubles did: she is Jewish, and most of her family is in France, where Hitler’s Third Reich is slowly approaching in its invasion of Europe. Breckinridge Long, real life Assistant Secretary of State at the time, actively campaigned against letting in the Jewish refugees to America. In fact, it is estimated that some 190,000 Jewish people might have been saved if they had been allowed to come here (not to get political, but doesn’t that sound familiar in 2015/2016?). Between hiding from her terrible memories of the past, working at her steady but boring WPA (Works Progress Administration) job, trying to find her own voice in abstract painting, and saving money to buy visas for her family, Benoit is slowly starting to unravel from the stress.
Benoit is obstinately the main character, but there are perspectives from her friends and even Eleanor Roosevelt (who seems like an awesome lady – if her characterization is true). We also jump from this WWII past to the 2015 present, where Benoit’s great-niece, Dani, works at Christie’s auction house, dealing in authenticating paintings. Her great-aunt’s exploits are all but lost to time, and her discovery of new paintings that she hopes are Benoit’s triggers a search to finding the truth. This actually became a little frustrating because we know what’s going on because we’re reading about it, but Dani has to figure it all out. There’s still mystery elements since Benoit disappeared in 1940, and no one knows what happened to her (it’s explained in the end but not as satisfactorily as I’d’ve liked). Also, I don’t get who’s supposed to be on the cover; both Benoit and Dani are blondes. I know that’s not strictly the writer’s fault, but still.
Other negative elements included the dialogue. It was very on-the-nose and bland at times, especially in the beginning. And Dani’s reasons for why she didn’t paint anymore didn’t really ring authentic. More of a shoehorned explanation of why she was and wasn’t like Benoit. In general, I found the actual historical parts to be far more interesting. I knew the US had turned away Jewish refugees, but I didn’t know it was so many. And I didn’t know about the WPA or how much Mrs. Roosevelt was involved in the art movement during pre-wartime. That was all fascinating, and it took awhile for Benoit’s story to catch up to that level of intrigue.
In any case, I liked it but probably not for the right reasons. Now I just want to read a biography on Eleanor Roosevelt and watch a few WWII documentaries.
(P.S. to my blog readers: Apologies for no story post yesterday. I had the kind of writer’s block where when you try to access that creative part of your brain, there is literally nothing there. Just poking around made my head ache! Hopefully things will be back on track next week!)
Header image: The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, published November 3rd 2015 by Algonquin Books.