B.A. Shapiro’s latest novel, “The Muralist,” alternates between the world of today and that of 1939 America as it follows the story of Danielle Abrams and that of her aunt Alizee Benoit.
When the story opens, Abrams, a young researcher for Christie’s auction house in New York, has found four paintings taped to the back of some newly discovered abstract expressionist paintings. Their style matches the two Benoit paintings that Abrahms owns and she is convinced they are the works of her aunt, who disappeared while a muralist for the Works Progress Administration. She becomes determined to prove it and to find out what happened to Benoit.
The tale then moves to Benoit, who was friends with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko during a harsh time for artists, especially female artists.
The novel weaves back and forth between the two stories and occasionally is told from the perspective of Benoit’s friends, but Benoit is the story’s heart, and her story is one that resonates today. As Hitler rises to power, her family’s letters to her become more desperate as do her efforts to save them. She turns to Eleanor Roosevelt, who has befriended her (such unlikely things happen in this novel), hoping she can persuade the president to approve more visas for Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler. But the first lady runs up against politics and fear.
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Amid the fiction there is much historical accuracy about both the times and the artists – Mark Rothko did kill himself, and Eleanor Roosevelt once said it was her great regret that she could not persuade FDR to allow more Jewish refugees into the U.S. But Shapiro has written a mystery-thriller, not a textbook.
Not that the book is perfect: There are too many characters, and coincidences multiply. But those are quibbles in a book that offers a haunting tale.
By B.A. Shapiro
Algonquin, 333 pages
Meet the author
Shapiro will be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Thursday.