an object of beauty

During a layover last month I picked up a copy of Steven Martin’s most recent book, An Object of Beauty. I’ve been seriously falling short in the reading department lately. By lately I’m afraid I might be referring to the last five years since I was an English major in college. Armed with an Amazon.com giftcard, a set of magnetic kitty book marks, and the rare gift of free time, I am ready to set things right. I hope the new year finds me finally paying off my atrocious library fines and making the transformation from the girl who has an impressive amount of really cool books to the girl who has an impressive amount of really cool books and has actually read most of them.

My only complaint about reading books is that I love them fiercely and then often forget them. It’s not intentional, of course, just an inevitable consequence of my seemingly defective long term memory. Since consuming large quantities of ginkgo biloba doesn’t sound like the most sustainable plan of action, I figured I might devote some time to book blogging. In addition to providing literary prey for my inner snark, it will also be a nice way to catalogue what I’ve read. I realize there are websites designed exclusively for these things, but it turns out I need help remembering a lot more than just books and one URL is plenty enough for me. Blog = dear diary meets sticky note.

The back cover of An Object of Beauty says that with twenty-two lush, four-color art reproductions throughout, the book is “both a primer on the business of fine art collecting and a close study of the personalities that make it run.” Now, few people can argue with the intrigue of four-color art reproductions, but having finished the novel last week, I’d say it was more collegiate art history class than a collecting primer and that the personalities that make the business run rather made the book lag.

An Object of Beauty is narrated by Daniel Franks and follows the story of Lacey Yeager, chronicling her successes and failures in the New York art scene. Daniel is mostly an admirable narrator. He’s a smart, art critic whose slightly sullen and reserved personality costs him a lasting romantic relationship and makes him seem just a little too stereotypical “quiet nerdy guy who never gets the girl” for my liking. He reminds me of a downgraded John Cusack in one of his High Fidelty-esque romantic roles. His ho hum lack of initiative is in stark contrast to Lacey, who is the quintessential Gemini. It would seem Lacey, herself, is an object of beauty– young, ambitious and charming. Her restless personality keeps her flitting around from one project to the next, be that project a painting or a boyfriend.

As a Steve Martin fan, I had high hopes for the book when I started reading. Lacey, it turns out, is really a subpar protagonist and the one dimensional descriptions of her left me frequently dettached. Daniel, who tells his readers he had sex with Lacey “exactly once,”  is always describing how when Lacey walks into a room, heads turn. Lacey rides her bicycle, heads turn. Lacey enters the gallery, heads turn. Lacey goes to dinner, heads turn. Etc. and etc. There are many chapters that open or close with such depictions of Lacey’s physical prowess and it all becomes super redundant super fast. Being the “carpe diem” hottie that she is, her unpredictable take-life-by-the-reins attitude actually renders her a completely predictable character. With the exception of one minor “twist” near the end of the book, Lacey’s actions leave much to be desired as far as a plot.

In an NPR interview Martin said: “the artistic side of the world has people with more flamboyant personalities, or more uncategorizable personalities, and Lacey is certainly one of those people.” Lacey is about as uncategorizable as a Sex in the City episode. And I mean that with insult only to Lacey, and not to Carrie, because I adore Sexy in the City.

If Martin conceived Lacey as some sort genre-defying  anti-heroine, he had a fetching idea. Somewhere along the production line, however, the execution of this idea got botched. As a cunning and cruel heartbreaker, Lacey’s not designed to elicit empathy from readers. Under the influence of X she tells her friend she loves him and then doesn’t return his call for three years. Upon learning he is the identity behind the elusive up and coming artist, she nabs him for a show with a little sweet talk. Lacey’s an opportunist and a lush– two desirable qualities, if you ask me. She exhibits minor complexities here and there but over all, she is flat out boring. As a Gemini, myself, I feel I must apologize on her behalf.

You’ll be pleased to know there is a character I fell in love with, so before I start going all cray cray on Steve Martin I will say that Patrice Claire was the jewel of the book. Patrice is a middle aged, European, millionaire with an insatiable appetite for two things: art and Lacey. He has some of the most poignant lines in the novel and a sweetness to him despite the fact that he’s kind of skeezy which makes him kind of hot. I also really enjoyed the conversation Lacey has with John Updike on the train.

I found the book to be fairly funny overall, with its descriptions of exhibition trends and jesting attitude toward art snobbery and avaricious dealers. However, there was a lot of superfluity. At times, I definitely felt like I was wading through a litany of artists, hoping to past through the didactic illuminations about modernism and move into something more interesting. You know, like, a better storyline.

I suppose I could have ended the book thinking about what drives rich art collectors and if it’s possible for something to be beautiful and famous if it doesn’t come with the appropriate price tag that signifies its cultural worth. What is the intersection between art as a commodity and art as aesthetics? Or maybe I should have finished the novel mulling over the fine line between passion and obsession. Or I could have been thinking long and hard about Lacey, questioning the intent of her cool and calculated rise to the top, wondering what she was really thinking all those years she climbed the ladder. Will she every truly be happy? Did she finally find love? Does she even believe in love? Do I believe in love? What is happiness? Why are Warhols so fucking expensive?

But no. I just felt a little annoyed after the last page. Actually, I felt a little annoyed on the last page. I didn’t so much care for the ending.

Martin is a fab and skillful writer and some of his passages are very eloquent and moving, but those passages are isolated patches of brilliance. They work stunningly as a paragraph but not as impressive when woven together into a novel. Whatever its flaws, I still think An Object of Beauty is worth reading, and hey, it will look damn good on your bookshelf. You know, with those twenty-two four color illustrations and all.

 

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