The Collector’s Apprentice

by B. A. Shapiro
First sentence: “This isn’t how it was supposed to be, Edwin.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are a couple of f-bombs, and a couple of tasteful sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s 1922 and Pauliene Mertens is in Paris, abandoned by her ex-fiance (he took the money and ran, ruining her family’s fortune and name) and disowned by her family. So she changes her name to Vivienne Gregsby and reinvents herself, as a secretary to an American, Edwin Bradley, who is in Paris looking to collect art and start a museum. Knowledgeable about Impressionism and post-Impressionism, Bradley soon discovers that Vivienne is indispensable, and brings her to America to help him set up his (private) museum. From there, it’s a lot of drawing-room drama: alleged and actual affairs, money issues, ex-fiance popping up with another scheme, Matisse and Gertrude Stein, and the whole undercurrent of whether or not anyone will figure out who Vivienne really is.

It’s a little bit of a mystery — who killed Edwin? It’s a little bit 1920s art history. It’s a little bit romance (Vivienne takes up with Matisse, not to mention her relationship with George that starts the whole book off). It’s a little bit of a lot of things, which maybe is what kept me from loving it. I enjoyed the art history part the best; the way Shapiro writes Matisse is fabulous; he (and Gertrude Stein) was my favorite character. Vivienne was kind of a bland character to spend most of the book with, and it made the ending kind of surprising. (In fact, the only thing I wanted out of the book was George to get his comeuppance. Seriously.)

It’s (really) loosely based on history, and I found myself wondering what was true (answer: not much, really) and what wasn’t. And while I enjoyed it well enough, it wasn’t my favorite novel this year by a long shot.

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