A Nearly Perfect Copy
by Allison Amend
New York: Random House, 2013.
Is a lie ever justified? Can deceit lead to happiness? Allison Amend examines this tangled web in a story set in the art world. Elm works for Tinsley’s, a New York auction house established by her grandfather. She has “the eye” – the ability to see art as if through the eyes of the artist, a “transubstantiation” that seems spiritual as if she hears the art speak. Her area of expertise is seventeenth- through nineteenth- century drawings and prints, which makes her “the go-to person for a New York Times quote, the one who took big clients to dinner, a member of the board of trustees of two museums and the art consultant to a trendy, invited-members-only downtown social club.”
But Elm’s eye has suffered since a 2004 vacation in Thailand when her son was lost in a tsunami. Somehow she managed to make it to the shore with her daughter but her son, Rolan, was never found. Her husband was right beside him. She knows it wasn’t Ian’s fault, after all, some 240,000 were killed, but could he not have saved one little boy?
At an art patron’s home, she meets a couple who loved their Rhodesian Ridgeback so much they’re investigating having him cloned. It’s an audacious idea, but her depression is so great, her grief so deep, that it gets her thinking.
In Paris, Gabriel is the quintessential starving artist. A graduate of a prestigious art school, his gift is his ability to create derivative drawings of masters, especially the Spanish painters of the late 1800’s. He knows how to prime canvasses with gesso, making them so smooth the paint glides. He knows how to mix his own colors – “stark cobalt, aquamarine nearly glowing, or a navy, so dark, as to masquerade as black” – the colors so often used by the artists he emulates. When he takes brush in hand, he channels these painters onto the canvas. Compared to his original art which has been described by teachers as lacking inspiration, voice or spark, these works glitter.
Through his girlfriend, Colette, who also works for Tinsley’s, he receives a proposition from her uncle – create canvasses in the style of the Spanish masters for a client who is furnishing a hotel. Such a simple job; what easy money. Why shouldn’t he finally make his art pay? How could he possibly know that it is destined for a New York auction house?
A careful reader can see where Amend is going with this story. Like Faust, each character makes a deal with the devil. Elm is so deep in deceit that she doesn’t question the art that crosses her desk. If she wants to recreate her son, she needs lots of money for the exclusive French doctors who do the procedure. In contrast, Gabriel simply wants to hold onto his girlfriend, pay his rent and get some respect in the art world. He’s torn, but it’s better than selling canvases beside the Seine.
Amend complicates the plot even further by overlaying Elm and Gabriel’s story with the continuing effort by US and French authorities to reunite art taken by the Nazi’s to the families of the owners. It seems the uncle not only wants to pass off Gabriel’s work as authentic but also to claim it was recovered stolen property. His logic is seductive: “Say you borrow twenty euros from someone. Then you pay them back. Does it have to be the same twenty euros?”
As Elm and Gabriel consider their options, the reader gets an insider’s look into the world or at and art forgery. It’s big business. While the central characters are at times dislikeable, the minor characters fill in the spaces their conscience has skipped. Lying is a web but a seductive one. A Nearly Perfect Copy is not a perfect novel, but it’s close enough for an enjoyable read.
My wine recommendation:
Ah, the French aperitif. What a wonderful ritual. Whether shared with friends before a meal or at a book club meeting, my favorite is Kir Royale. In a fluted glass, add crème de Cassis or Chambord liqueur to champagne. Save the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label for another occasion and choose instead Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. Its fresh apple aromas will balance nicely with the black current of the Cassis and its price will satisfy both your palette and your wallet. Santé! ($22)