Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: The Muralist

The Muralist The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alizee Benoit, orphaned at an early age, is an abstract painter in New York City in 1939, working under the auspices of the WPA. She rebels against being forced to paint in the approved representational manner and as a result of a chance meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt, she is allowed to create an abstract mural to hang in a public library. She is close friends with other abstract artists - Jackson Pollock, Mike Rothko, Lee Krasner, and others-- and she gets closely involved with a communist organization in an attempt to get her Jewish French family visas. Her life comes crashing down around her as the result of her group's attempts to discredit the Assistant Secretary of State who is actively working to bar granting visas to Jewish refugees. At the same time, Alizee's mental illness brings her to an emotional collapse. She is voluntarily committed to a sanitorium; however, two days later she checks herself out and disappears.

In 2015, Alizee's great niece Dani discovers some mysterious abstract pictures taped behind some purported pictures by Rothko and Pollock. They remind her strongly of two pictures by her great aunt that she has inherited. Alizee was never located, so no one knows what happened to her. They mystery has always intrigued Dani who tries to trace her aunt, as she also tries to prove that the mysterious pictures were her aunt's work.

The story is told by the two main characters, Dani and Alizee, each speaking from their individual present. While the overall story is tragic, the resolution was quite satisfying.

Knowing nothing of abstract art and therefore not at all able to appreciate it, I found the book quite interesting as Alizee and the other artists attempted to explain what their art was trying to express. The book also highlighted the plight of Jewish refugees attempting to emigrate to the US from 1939 and the early years of the war. The official position of the US on Jewish immigration was tragic as was the anti-Semitic stance of much of the media and vocal public. It's hard not to draw parallels to today's anti-Muslim attitudes.

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