An Object of BeautyAn Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never expected I would wax enthusiastic about this novel. It’s not my usual fare, this heartbeat-away-from-yesterday contemporary New York story with a fashion plate protagonist, but I gobbled it up in two bouts of insomnia this week. I can’t discuss the story without making one big spoiler of the plot, but it’s whimsical and fast-paced. Yet- this is Steve Martin, after all- the laughter is wry and not without sadness and irony.

The best bit of this treat is the writing. I’ve read Steve Martin’s two earlier novels and enjoyed his laconic, sardonic style, so I was expecting more of the same. But here his writing snaps, his pacing crackles, and his plot pops. Perhaps because the setting is Manhattan and not Santa Monica, his prose exudes a terrific energy.

Then there is his central character, Lacey Yeager, an art world whiz kid with ego and ambition enough to dwarf the Empire State Building. She is not a sympathetic character, reason enough for me to abandon any other book. She is everything I am not- beautiful, sophisticated, irresistible to men- (qualities that made me wonder if it is possible for a male author to write an interesting story about an average-looking woman); then again, Lacey is also manipulative, promiscuous, unethical- a bit of a skank, really. And she can’t speak French. Pauvre salope. Score one for me. Point is, Martin gives her beauty and chutzpah, but shows her making some terrible decisions. Fortunately, he doesn’t tell you whether or not you should admire or condemn her survival instincts.

The setting, the New York City art scene from the early 1990’s to 2008, is also wholly unfamiliar ground. Martin is an experienced art collector and he pulls back the curtain to reveal a demi-monde of dilettantes and deception. There is a definite Bronx Cheer spirit to the story, but I wouldn’t deem this a parody. Martin skillfully creates this world through dialogue and action that show its complexity, fickle nature, and the egos and finances at stake without condescending to his art-ignorant readers.   The inclusion of reproductions of the paintings fought over, bid on, admired and stolen is a stroke of brilliance.

There are things that rankle me: the characters are a bit flat and cartoonish- it is a stretch to relate them to real characters in my life. Near the end, after the story reaches its climax, it drags with expository detail that reads like a movie voice-over. And once again, 9/11 is used (momentarily, in this case) to bring forth an element of humanity in the most jaded. But of course, the author could not have told a story of modern NYC without including that dreadful day.

A great way to while away a few hours’ sleeplessness. Or perhaps I remained wide awake because I was that enthralled.

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