B. A. Shapiro tops her wonderful previous novel The Art Forger with a second triumph. The Muralist engagingly tackles some very important historical topics, weaving them together with a current day story.
Alizée Benoit is a fictional young American artist, worried about her family in France under Nazi occupation during World War II. The novel touches on historical elements like the increasing difficulty for Jews to get out of Europe, the disastrous story of the passengers aboard the St. Louis, and the delay in getting news about loved ones during that time. The story exposes the dirty politics of the isolationists during Roosevelt’s administration, and how Breckenridge Long managed to withhold hundreds of thousands of desperately needed visas from Jewish European refugees, but also explores how the WPA, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress (later renamed Projects) Administration created jobs for so many Americans and supported Eleanor Roosevelt’s special interest and attention to creating work for artists. The evolution of Abstract Expressionism — as practiced by artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and William de Kooning — is told through the lens of Alizée’s budding career.
Danielle Abrams is a lapsed artist working at Christie’s auction house when she discovers hidden unsigned paintings attached to the backs of canvases that appear to be painted by Pollock, Rothko, and Krasner. She sets out to begin the process of authenticating these possibly huge artistic discoveries, while harboring the idea that the hidden paintings were created by none other than her own long lost great aunt Alizée Benoit. Danielle knows little about Alizée and slowly begins to fill in the picture of her immensely talented relative, discovering Eleanor Roosevelt’s strong role as an advisor to her husband in the White House, her heartfelt regret for failing to save Europe’s refugees and her passionate devotion to the arts.
Though a work of fiction, The Muralist’s historical foundation depicts how and why most Americans were uninformed, apathetic or actively anti-involvement in occupied Europe under Hitler’s rule. I heartily recommend The Muralist and look forward to the next addition to B. A. Shapiro’s oeuvre.