Friday, March 18, 2011

The Wild and Crazy Guy Gets Serious

By Chip Schrader
Book Reviewer
“An Object of Beauty” is actor Steve Martin’s latest novel featuring the cutthroat business behind art collecting. A follow up to the novella “Shop Girl,” which was adapted to the screen, Martin positions himself as a Renaissance Man with screenplays, stage plays, novels, albums featuring his banjo playing, and comedic writing all credited to his name.
“An Object of Beauty” is told from the perspective of Daniel Franks. While the reader might expect the novel to be the lamenting of his own life, Daniel’s focus is on the life and times of his muse, Lacey Yeager. Lacey is a street-wise, unattached, and ruthless self-promoter. Starting in the basement of Sotheby’s restoring and cataloging “dogs,” or lesser paintings, she climbs her way up to work for a private collector.
Martin’s descriptions of the paintings mentioned in the story please even readers who do not have an understanding of art and its collectability. The story uncovers why certain paintings become valuable, and how successful people become successful through cunning. Lacey’s beauty and cunning embody the art and the business of the art trade. As Martin describes the beauty of a painting, and the teetering values of these pieces, the reader quickly realizes, he is also describing his main character.
The intermittent first person insertions in the narration give this book a shade of the old hard-boiled detective fiction. While narrator Daniel admits some of the details of his subject are made up, the account of her life seems plausible. Furthermore, this admission by the narrator is a clever device that Martin uses to enable for a more complete depiction of the elusive Lacey that even her greatest admirer could not follow her enough to witness.
The sensuality, wit, and strength of Lacey are almost enough to forgive her predilection to use the people around her. She is nearly tragic as value has only a material context, and the story, without judgment takes us on her rise to Power. Among the most interesting incidents during her ascent is her trip to Russia where she is asked to trade paintings. It is here that she meets Patrice, a European with the eyes and hands of an artist. For the first time, Lacey finds interest in somebody for more than a one-time rendezvous.
Another touch this novel provides is full color reproductions of many of the paintings Martin references in the story. Martin never falls into the trap of using art world jargon, and he keeps his audience interested in his subject while retaining the integrity and intelligence in his storytelling.
While readers might expect a fluffy romp from the actor who made “The Jerk” a household classic, Steve Martin veers away from comedy avoiding high drama, and weaves a tale with a great deal of class and tact. His descriptions are light and read quickly, yet vivid enough to paint a thorough picture in the reader’s mind. “An Object of Beauty” belongs in the same category as the work of Peter Mayle and even Truman Capote.
Grand Central Publishing, November 2010, 292 Pages, $26.99.
Photo caption: (Courtesy book cover of “An Object of Beauty” by Steve Martin)