A specialist in seventeenth- through nineteenth-century prints, Elm — short for Elmira — Howells carries on the family tradition, working at the distinguished Manhattan auction house her great-grandfather founded. In Paris another heir to family tradition, Gabriel Connois, great-grandson of a noted artist, rails against the current art scene as he attempts to establish his painting career. For Elm, obsessed by the death of her beloved young son in the tsunami that swept across Thailand, every day is a struggle against memories she can’t and won’t erase. Every day for Gabriel raises questions about what direction, if any, his life and art are taking. In this highly plotted novel Allison Amend, author of a prize-winning collection of short stories and the novel Stations West, places Elm and Gabriel in situations that first offer them answers but that ultimately lead them into deeper problems.
Elm and Gabriel never meet in the course of the novel, but they both make emotionally and morally complicated decisions that connect them. These decisions, running on parallel paths, draw them into a sophisticated art forgery ring that exploits the Holocaust. Against this background Amend weaves sympathy, ambition, deception, loss, and family into a dense tapestry that ultimately unravels and threatens all that is most important to Elm and Gabriel.
With a sharp eye for social detail, Amend draws telling settings in New York and Paris and opens the door on a hushed European laboratory that practices cloning and the commercial side of the high-stakes art world. At times Elm and Gabriel feel like characters created to animate these settings and the ethical questions they raise; neither is fully sympathetic or rounded, and their families, friends, and associates play specific supporting roles in Elm’s and Gabriel’s intensely personal dramas. But the intricate double plot, played out against well-researched details of art forgery, and the painful personal ties move the story along at a good pace. Amend’s writing is sure and accomplished, and teasing out the ramifications of Elm’s and Gabriel’s conflicts provokes thoughtful reading.