The Col­lec­tor’s Appren­tice: A Novel

March 29, 2018

It’s the sum­mer of 1922, and nine­teen-year-old Paulien Mertens finds her­self in Paris — broke, dis­owned, and com­plete­ly alone. Every­one in Bel­gium, includ­ing her own fam­i­ly, believes she stole mil­lions in a sophis­ti­cat­ed con game per­pe­trat­ed by her then-fiancé George Ever­ard. To pro­tect her­self from the law and the wrath of those who lost every­thing, she cre­ates a new iden­ti­ty— a French­woman named Vivi­enne Gregs­by — and sets out to recov­er her father’s art col­lec­tion to prove her inno­cence — and exact revenge on George. When the eccen­tric and wealthy Amer­i­can art col­lec­tor Edwin Bradley offers Vivi­enne the per­fect job, she is soon caught up in the Parisian world of post-Impres­sion­ists and expa­tri­ates — includ­ing Gertrude Stein and Hen­ri Matisse with whom Vivi­enne becomes roman­ti­cal­ly entwined. As she trav­els between Paris and Philadel­phia where Bradley is build­ing an art muse­um, her life becomes even more com­pli­cat­ed: George returns with unclear motives … and then Vivi­enne is arrest­ed for Bradley’s mur­der. B. A. Shapiro has made the his­tor­i­cal art thriller her own. In The Collector’s Appren­tice, she gives us an unfor­get­table tale about the lengths to which peo­ple will go for their obses­sion, whether it be art mon­ey love or vengeance.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Bar­bara Shapiro

  1. One of the themes of the book is that we see only what we want to see, and that we’re eas­i­ly swayed by out­ward appear­ances. Do you think this is true? How does Shapiro devel­op this theme through­out the nov­el? Have you had any expe­ri­ences in which you were fooled by some­one pre­tend­ing to be some­one or some­thing they weren’t?

  2. The major­i­ty of The Collector’s Appren­tice takes place in the 1920s and is told from Vivienne’s point of view. How­ev­er, there are also por­tions nar­rat­ed by Paulien that take place before the main sto­ry­line, and por­tions nar­rat­ed by an old­er Vivi­enne that take place after the main sto­ry­line. How did this struc­ture affect your read­ing experience?

  3. There are also inter­mit­tent chap­ters from George’s point of view. How dif­fer­ent would the sto­ry have been with­out the antagonist’s take? What do we learn about Vivienne/​Paulien from see­ing her through George’s eyes?

  4. The post-Impres­sion­ists pushed beyond the work of the Impres­sion­ists by shift­ing focus from what a sub­ject actu­al­ly looks like to how the artist per­ceives it. Why do you think Shapiro chose this par­tic­u­lar artis­tic back­drop for her nov­el? Why was the pub­lic so shocked by the post-Impres­sion­ists at first, and how do you think their work came to be appre­ci­at­ed over time?

  5. As in many of her books, in The Collector’s Appren­tice, Shapiro explores the ques­tion of what her char­ac­ters are will­ing to do to get what they want. Does Paulien cross an eth­i­cal line to get what she wants? Does Vivi­enne? George? Edwin? Do you think any of their moral­ly ambigu­ous deci­sions are justified?

  6. Anoth­er ques­tion that aris­es from the sto­ry is: Who owns art? If you pur­chase a piece of art, does it belong to you for­ev­er, and are you free to destroy it or keep oth­er peo­ple from enjoy­ing it? Can any­one own” great art, or is there a cul­tur­al oblig­a­tion to share it with the world? Was Bradley right to con­trol who could see his art­work? Was his real-life coun­ter­part, Albert Barnes?

  7. Do you think that either Paulien or George would be able to suc­cess­ful­ly accom­plish their dis­guis­es and changes of iden­ti­ty today? Would the inter­net and social media make it more or less difficult?

  8. Do you believe Paulien was in any way respon­si­ble for what George did to her fam­i­ly? Why or why not?

  9. There are a num­ber of love sto­ries in The Collector’s Appren­tice. Do you believe that any of these rela­tion­ships were true love”? Did Paulien love George? Did Vivi­enne? Did Bradley love Vivi­enne? Did Vivi­enne love Matisse and did he love her? Did George love either Paulien or Vivi­enne? Is a man like George capa­ble of love?

  10. Shapiro based George on her study of sociopaths, imbu­ing him with many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of this kind of per­son­al­i­ty dis­or­der, par­tic­u­lar­ly his lack of empa­thy. Does his inabil­i­ty to put him­self in some­one else’s shoes hurt him or help him? Have you ever encoun­tered any­one with these traits in your own life?

  11. In The Collector’s Appren­tice, Shapiro imag­ines inter­ac­tions between per­sons who actu­al­ly exist­ed and char­ac­ters she has cre­at­ed. Does this enhance or detract from the believ­abil­i­ty of the story?

  12. Shapiro includ­ed an author’s note that explains some of the dis­crep­an­cies between the sto­ry and his­tor­i­cal events. Was this help­ful? What are some of the ques­tions you would ask her if you could?