Posted: 17 Nov 2013
B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger is a fun thriller about a piece of art that was stolen as part of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. For those of you that don't know the story, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a gem of a museum in Boston located in a charming old mansion. The works that populate the Museum are the collection of a rich eccentric and ardent art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who established the museum in 1903. In 1990 thieves dressed as Boston police officers entered the Museum and stole 13 art works (including works by Rembrandt, Manet, Degas, Vermeer). For decades the robbery went unsolved - just this year the FBI announced they knew who the thieves were, but the location of the stolen art remain undiscovered. Here in Boston this theft has been the stuff of urban legend - with rumors swirling that Whitey Bulger was behind the theft.
With this backdrop, B.A. Shapiro creates a fictional account of one woman's connection to a work allegedly stolen as part of that heist (a fictional painting by Degas entitled "After the Bath). The novel's heroine, Claire Roth, is a struggling artist who has been blackballed by the art world because of a scandal in her past. To make ends meet she does copies of Degas paintings for a website called "reproductions.com". One day a sexy and successful art dealer, Aiden Markel, asks her to make a reproduction of one of the Degas' stolen in the Gardner heist - in return she will get a lot of money and more importantly a one woman show at his gallery. From here Shapiro quickly sweeps the reader into a suspenseful and interesting mystery. An explanation of the pad thai, pictured above, after the jump and below.
I have no idea about the accuracy of anything in B.A. Shapiro's novel about the Gardner art heist and the art world generally - but she certainly created an engaging story that kept me interested all the way through. The novel is mostly set in the present day and the world of Claire Roth, struggling artist. Shapiro also takes us back a few years to tell the story of Claire's past as a protege and girlfriend of a famous and successful artist, Isaac Cullion. In addition, Roth intersperses fictional letters from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her niece from the 1890s. Each of these three narrative strings are intertwined and have secrets that are slowly revealed and mysteries that are eventually solved.
Claire is a likable heroine - she is earnest and passionate about her work. Although it is so obviously a bad choice, you almost can't blame her for accepting handsome Aiden Markel's offer to paint a replica of a priceless stolen artwork - Degas' After the Bath. Once she starts her work Claire discovers that the painting that Markel asked her to copy may itself be a forgery. This suspicious sets of the novel's suspense as she tries to figure out whether the painting is real or a forgery and if a forgery, where the real painting may be. One part of the novel that was a bit on the cheesy side is Claire's affair with Markel - it was written in a paperback romance kind of way and didn't feel real. That said, the book was an enjoyable and interesting read.
For much of the book, when Claire is hunkered down painting (either her own work or her copies), all she eats is Pad Thai. While during her romance with Markel there were some additional food inspirations (he makes her a gourmet mac and cheese and gourmet grilled cheese), for me the Pad Thai captured better the spirit of the book - the obsessed starving artist. This recipe is an amalgam of a few I found on the web though it is mostly from original Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle's recipe in Food and Wine. It came together very easily though there were some unusual ingredients (some which I couldn't find and I improvised, as reflected below) and I will not be leaving this to only take out orders anymore!
1 package Pad Thai noodles
2 tablespoons raw sugar
1 teaspoon Tamarind paste (in Asian/Indian food section)
4 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1/2 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon minced shallot
1/2 tablespoon minced lemongrass
peanut or canola oil
2 large eggs
2 ounces cooked shrimp
1 cup diced extra firm tofu
2/3 cup chopped scallions
1/2 cup chopped peanuts (unsalted)
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1. Place the noodles in a large bowl and cover with hot water. Let sit for 15 minutes, then drain.
2. Combine the sugar, tamarind, fish sauce and rice vinegar in a small bowl and stir until mixed.
3. In another small bowl, combine the ginger, garlic, shallot and lemongrass.
4. In a large wok or skillet heat a couple of tablespoons of oil until hot.
5. Add eggs and stir fry until just barely cooked through.
6. Push the egg to the outer edge of the skillet, then add the shrimp, tofu, ginger mixture and noodles and stir fry until the shrimp are cooked, about 3 minutes.
7. Add the sauce and stir until all the noodles are evenly coated.
8. Add the scallions and stir to incorporate.
9. Serve with chopped peanuts and bean sprouts on top and lime to taste.