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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

After reading and loving Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, I decided to keep up with his novels, so it was with great excitement that I finally picked up An Object of Beauty. It becomes clear almost immediately that this is going to be a very different novel. The main character, Lacey Yeager, is basically a predator. She lacks the soft, shy, loneliness of Martin’s previous characters (though the narrator, who we learn very little about, has it in spades). The predatory Lacey begins the novel as a recent college graduate looking to make her place in the art world of New York through whatever means necessary. Now, if this were merely the story of a beautiful young social climber it would hold no interest for me, but it is so much more than that.

Essentially, An Object of Beauty is the story of the New York art scene over the past twenty years. Steve Martin uses Lacey and her story to tell that much broader history; from the rise in popularity (and price) of modern artworks in the mid 90s to the economic collapse of 2008 and the subsequent collapse of the art market, the book was a fascinating look into a world I knew nothing about. Martin described the fluctuations of the market in terms that I could understand, as he did when describing the rise in prices of contemporary works following Andy Warhol’s steady rise in price:

“When Warhol started to achieve newsworthy prices, the value of contemporary art, including art that was yet to be created, was pushed up from behind. Warhol’s presence was so vivid, so recent, that he was identified not with the dead, but as the first nugget from Sutter’s Mill. The rush was on.”

The feeling of being in on this art world esoterica was good enough, but Martin combined it with an interesting, if immoral, character in Lacey. The novel also holds an element of mystery, as very early on the reader is made aware that Lacey has done something that was not exactly on the level. This is entirely true to her character, but what exactly she has done goes unexplained until the end when it comes to light as the art market crashes in on itself.

Steve Martin has written a very good novel with a slow, natural tone that will be familiar to the fans of his other books even if the significantly less endearing characters are not. The book itself is beautiful, as it contains illustrations of various works of art alongside the discussions about them in the text.

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