The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, published 2015. Talk about timing. An important look at two world-changing topics: the refugees of pre-war WWII trying to enter the United States and the budding American school of Abstract Expressionism. A strange combination, you’re thinking, but not so according to the beautiful piece of historical fiction B.A. Shapiro paints. It’s a tale of art, politics and consequences with some predictability seeping in.
It’s 1940 in New York City and Alizee Benoit, a young painter, works for the WPA/FAP, the art division of the Works Progress Administration, one of Roosevelt’s New Deal employment program. She was hanging out with big names and fellow WPA painters – Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner – and living in a Greenwich, CT warehouse with no heat or hot water on the weekends.
She was also hanging out with fringe groups trying to get American visas to the desperate thousands in German-occupied France. Specifically her Jewish family members. (Shapiro does an impressive job in researching the details of the largely forgotten plight of European refugees refused entry to the United States during this time.) Alizee attracts the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, initially through her art and then again through the story of the refugees told with her 16 feet of murals.
But back to the fringe groups…Alizee drops off the radar after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Breckenridge Long, deputy Secretary of State. The questions surrounding her disappearance and all the speculations make their way through the family until 70 years later when her great-niece, working at Christie’s auction house, discovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind the works of those now famous Abstract Expressionist artists. The answers eventually come through her great-aunt’s creative way of messaging.
I give The Muralist 4 margaritas in the Cool Mona rating system. Check out Shapiro’s The Art Forger which I reviewed in 2015.