In The Collector’s Apprentice, B.A. Shapiro continues her series of standalone novels of fictionalized art history. This novel draws its inspiration from the life and work of art collector Alfred Barnes, though it puts the focus on the woman modelled on Barnes’ assistant. It also condenses and sensationalizes events to deliver a thrilling story of murder, inheritance, and the Post-Impressionist revolution.
The Collector’s Apprentice covers three periods in the life of Paulien Mertens, alias Vivienne Gregsby. In 1929, she is on trial for the murder of her mentor and employer, Dr. Edwin Bradley. In 1922, she is on the streets of Paris, trying to make a living after being cast out by her family. In 1920, she is falling in love in London with a man who we learn, over the course of the novel, is responsible for ruining her life.
All Paulien/Vivienne wanted was to run a museum. As the daughter of a Belgian industrialist who dared to go against general tastes to collect Post-Impressionist works of art, Paulien dreams of creating her own museum. She is deeply in love with the emotional expressiveness of the new art coming out of France, with its bold colors and unorthodox primitiveness. But after getting engaged to a conman who destroyed the finances of dozens (and drove one man to suicide), no one will hire Paulien and her family has kicked her out. It’s only after she changes her name and is hired to translate for American art collector Bradley that she starts to rise again. The chapters set in 1929 and the reappearance of Paulien’s fiancé, George, make it clear that there are more bumps in the road head.
The Collector’s Apprentice is as much in love with Post-Impressionism as Paulien is. There are numerous scenes in which Paulien gets to mingle with the brightest lights in Paris. She has dinner at Gertrude Stein‘s house. She swoons for Henri Matisse. She gets to scour Paris for the latest, most daring paintings and sculptures. This book is so full of references to art and artists that readers who aren’t familiar with the Post-Impressionists will want to run to Wikipedia to get caught up. Even readers who are familiar with the art will probably want to refresh their memories. The descriptions of the works of art and their meaning are very evocative, but mere words can’t really capture the colors and sense of movement in a painting like Dance II.
On the other hand, it takes a while for the cat-and-mouse game to steal the show. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I understood why George kept showing up. I kept wanting to yell at Paulien for the way she keeps letting him manipulate her or her first feeble attempts to use him. But once the plot moves away from the art world and Paulien’s battles of will with her mentor and the mystery takes over, I loved reading about the twists and turns Paulien and George’s relationship.
The Collector’s Apprentice has much to recommend itself to readers, especially readers who also enjoy art. Paulien’s journey from naif to connoisseur and (possibly) con artist is a delight to watch. The best parts, for me, were at the end, when Paulien is at her greatest peril. I enjoyed the ekphrastic sections, but the thriller/mystery plot hooked me completely.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.