The Muralist by B A Shapiro

The Muralist by B A Shapiro is a mystery full of intrigue occurring under the Roosevelt administration during the depression just prior to the United State’s involvement in World War II. Mixed within the fictional narrative are historical truths which affected the events of the war. At the forefront was Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a close friend of the President who used his power to limit the number of immigrants entering the US, especially Jewish refugees. Going against the wishes of Congress, Long lied about the numbers while secretly denying visas and publicly justifying his actions with cries of spies mixed amongst the incoming Jews and lamentations over the loss of American jobs usurped from natural born citizens by the intrusive foreigners. (The same rhetoric we hear today about Syrian refugees).

But this is a story about a young artist, Alizee Benoit, whose Jewish family is caught in France swept up into the atrocities of the Holocaust. Desperately trying to obtain visas for her aunt, uncle, and cousins, as well as her brother, Alizee runs into obstacle after obstacle, horrified when even bribery can’t guarantee a safe passage to the United States, despite possible backdoor routes through other countries such as Cuba. Ships full of refugees are turned away and sent back to their fateful deaths. Befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt, even the First Lady fails to persuade her husband to intercede on the Jews behalf.

Alzee turns to her art to express her views and secretly joins a subversive group to attempt a change in the antisemitic policies of certain government officials. Working in the WPA art program in NYC creating public canvases for display, she is surrounded by other aspiring young artists who would later gain world renown (Abstract Expressionists – Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollack). While just as talented as her peers, her future is doomed when she gets caught on the wrong side of the right issue, necessitating her disappearance from view. Despite a thorough search by family and friends, she is never heard from again.

Seventy years later, Alizee’s niece, Danielle Abrams, is fascinated by the stories surrounding her mysterious great aunt. With her own artistic bent, Dani is currently employed by Christies Auction House cataloging various pieces of art from the WPA period in the hopes of identifying the works of the legendary artists who painted besides Alizee. Secretly she is trying to discover the riddle of a myriad of painted squares found taped to the backs of suspected masterpieces, sure that they can be connected to her aunt’s disappearance. Using the two paintings by Alizee which the family still owns as a guide, Dani is sure she has found the key to her aunt’s whereabouts.

Shapiro alternates between Dani’s search and flashbacks from the past to slowly reveal a gripping story from that fateful era. While seeking to clarify the mystery surrounding Alizee, Dani also discovers some truths about herself.

Shapiro has invented a new genre combining history, art, and intrigue. After the success of her previous novel, The Art Forger, she returns to the art world for this current work. Armed with historical tidbits from the era, Shapiro is able to recreate the concerns of the country in the years prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The actual disappearance of the muralist is jumbled and confusing, perhaps reflecting Alizee’s feelings of confusion from the illness within her body and her mind, but the culmination fusing events from present and past straightens out some of the questions posed by the author.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for providing an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

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