The Mural­ist: A Novel

By – May 20, 2015

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 Mural­ists 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.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Algo­nquin Books

  • The Mural­ist expos­es many facts about the sit­u­a­tion in the Unit­ed States before World War II, includ­ing the denial of visas to qual­i­fied refugees, the major­i­ty of the country’s oppo­si­tion to enter­ing the war, and the open dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews. Did you find any of this sur­pris­ing? In the wake of the Allies’ vic­to­ry, how has his­to­ry gen­er­al­ly por­trayed this pre­war peri­od in Amer­i­ca? Do you think there are par­al­lels to the Unit­ed States in the twen­ty-first century?

  • The issue of refugees run­ning from war and oppres­sion is as cur­rent today as it was dur­ing World War II. What sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences to do you see between nations’ respons­es today and those before World War II? What about in atti­tudes among U.S. citizens?

  • The author places Alizée, a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, among the real-life artists who cre­at­ed the Abstract Expres­sion­ist move­ment in New York in the 1940s. How did liv­ing there at that time inform their art? Is there some­thing quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can about Abstract Expressionism?

  • Alizée and her friends are employed by the Fed­er­al Art Project, a New Deal pro­gram fund­ed by the gov­ern­ment to give work to artists. Do you think a gov­ern­ment pro­gram like this could hap­pen in today’s polit­i­cal cli­mate? How are art and artists val­ued or sup­port­ed dif­fer­ent­ly in today’s society?

  • In what ways might artis­tic tal­ent and men­tal ill­ness be linked? Did you see man­i­fes­ta­tions of a link in Alizée? How did that dif­fer from the por­tray­als of Jack­son Pol­lock and Mark Rothko?

  • Alizée wants to believe that art can change the world. Does art have the pow­er to affect his­to­ry? Are there exam­ples of its doing so in the past?

  • Alizée decides to be part of an assas­si­na­tion attempt in the hopes of thwart­ing a greater wrong. Do you agree with what she does? Are there times when such deci­sions are jus­ti­fi­able? What was her state of mind when she made the decision?

  • How much do the times in which you live affect your indi­vid­ual life choic­es? How might Alizée’s life have been dif­fer­ent if she had lived in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry? Would her artis­tic dreams have been real­ized? How does Alizée’s artis­tic life com­pare with that of her grand­niece Danielle?

  • When Danielle finds out the truth about what hap­pened to her aunt, she seems able to become the artist she was meant to be. Why? Which was more impor­tant: find­ing the answer, or ask­ing the ques­tion in the first place?

  • Were you sur­prised at how Alizée’s life turned out? Relieved? How do you think Alizée felt about it? How did her art define her life, even amid dras­tic change?