The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro. Algonquin| November 3, 2015| 352 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 9781616203573
When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. Post-depression and pre-war, Alizée works alongside Lee Krasner on murals for government-funded WPA. The Works Progress Administration], established as part of the New Deal, hired the unemployed for public works projects and hired artists, writers and actors to develop arts, media and literacy projects]. Alizée vanishes amidst personal and political turmoil.
Author B.A. Shapiro drops this fictional character in among real historical figures such as Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and William de Kooning, well-known abstract artists in the 40s. This only works when you believe that the fictional character could have truly existed and with the outstanding depiction and details. Readers become involved in Alizée’s story and in her quest to expose the truth about the war and save her family from impending atrocities the Nazi Party will commit in France [Alizée’s family lives in France] before the United States became involved in the great war. While she falls into an affair with Mark Rothko she remains focused on her art as well as helping refugees flee Europe while the Nazis begin to evoke terror.
Rothko seems the most understanding being Jewish and having depression: “Whenever they passed one of the many restaurants in New York with a RESTRICTED sign in the front window, indicating that neither Negros nor Jews would be served, Mark was the first to say that he wasn’t interested in eating anywhere he wasn’t wanted. But there was always a particular set to his mouth, a hardness in his eyes, as they passed on.” Her friends including Pollock and Krasner support her and even assist her to create one political mural but fear losing their livelihood as artists by becoming too politically-involved. Shapiro writes: “Alizée understood they felt safe and secure on their side of the Atlantic, content with a worldview that didn’t cross over much to the other.”
By day she works for the government-funded WPA and in her free-time Alizée remains part of the counter-culture. She meets Eleanor Roosevelt [“Mrs. Roosevelt was a moving force behind the WPA/FAP, and every artist on the floor revered her for that] who purchases several paintings and becomes quite impressed with Alizée’s talent and desire to use her art to convey messages. She belongs to a communist anti-war group, Americans for No Limits. Alizée saves all her money to purchase visas for her family to leave France. She’s met with many roadblocks. Shapiro notes that there’s a young congressman (Lyndon Johnson) secretly transporting refugees to Texas. Unfortunately he’s not focusing on France at that time.
This clash of ideals makes Alizée a target and puts her into increasingly dangerous situations. President Roosevelt didn’t want the United States to become engaged in the war and to that end didn’t seem interested in assisting political (Jewish) refugees either. Honestly not that different from the United States willingness to bring Syrian refugees here. Alizée makes enemies with Eleanor Roosevelt’s isolationist enemies– Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh and Breckinridge Long.
In present day, Alizée’s great-niece Danielle Abrams works as a cataloger at Christie’s auction house. She gave up her plans to become an artist years ago. Instead she works to research and authenticate remarkable art for auction. Danielle discovers paintings hidden on the backs of potential masterpieces by Pollock, Rothko and Krasner which she believes might belong to her great-aunt. So begins a mystery which forces Danielle to follow her great-aunt’s tracks even traveling to France. Her family, particular her grandfather and Alizée’s brother, never revealed that much about Alizée who disappeared and devastated her brother prior to the war. Although he eventually made it to the United States, Henri never found out what happened to his sister.
Clearly Shapiro conducted extensive research and concocts a brilliant story that allows readers to learn about some of the government programs and policies prior to WWII. It’s an exciting and vivid imagining of what might have occurred during this tense and difficult era. Besides Alizée’s political involvement, there’s much about Rothko’s depression and a stint that Alizée spends in a mental institution. Her friends see her for the final time before Rothko drives her to be admitted. There’s much discussion between mental illness, self-medication, mental breakdowns, creativity and artwork.That’s fascinating and could be a novel in itself. When Danielle discovers that her great-aunt Alizée spent time in a mental institution she finds out that “there’s a strong statistical association between what we consider the artistic soul and the disease; compared with the general population, creative people—writers, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, directors—are much more frequently diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.”
Alizée is independent, brave, determined and talented. Much like her aunt, Danielle is a strong, outspoken and a confident woman. From page one I became engulfed in both Alizée’s and Danielle’s stories and how their lives intertwined. I learned many aspects about this time period of which I’d been unaware. This is a must-read for fall. It’s the November 2015 Indie Next #1 Great Read.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.
B.A. Shapiro will be at Brookline Booksmith on Tuesday, November 3 at 7pm and Concord Bookshop on Thursday, November 5 at 7pm.