With a 6 hour bus ride to and from Pittsburgh, this was the perfect page turner to pass thetime. Needing the distraction, I found myself willing to overlook the less than stellar writing. The historical aspect of the novel took me away to pre WWII in both the US and Europe. Taking place in New York in the late 1930s, the story centers around the abstract expressionist movement of the WPA, something I know little about: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko are the key players–all students of Hans Hofffman. The main character, Alizee Benoit is one of the only purely fictional characters. Many of the others–including Eleanor Roosevelt, an avid supporter of the arts and of progressive ideas–are historical figures, though Shapiro has taken great liberty (a fact disclosed in the end notes) in creating them, so who knows how much, if any, of their words or actions accurately portray them.
The story is narrated alternatively by Alizee, in 1939, and by her great niece Danielle, in 2015. Danielle is looking for information about her great aunt Alizee whom she knows was a painter in the abstract expressionist school, but who disappears sometime in 1940 and is never heard of again. The third group of players is Alizee’s family living in Europe during the rise of Hitler, trying desperately to get Visas to come to the US before they end up in a concentration camp. We meet them primarily through letter exchanges with Alizee in the late 1930s. I think these exchanges felt the most poignant, encompassing the parts of the book that pulled me into their desperate world. The weight of their words was haunting as they tried to maintain hope while also begging for help.
Other parts of the story felt contrived such as most of the dialogue between the artists and especially the dialogue between Alizee and Eleanor Roosevelt. I had to forget Hemingway and everything he and other writers teach us about good dialogue and just skim read those lines.
What I did not know, in terms of history, was the controversy over American Visas and the restrictive immigration policies in the late 30s and early 40s. I did not know about the Fifth Column, the America First Committee, or Asst. Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who essentially controlled the number of Visas and who reduced that number by more than 50% (against official US policy) under the auspices of “keeping America safe” by keeping immigrants out–and away from “our” jobs. I couldn’t help but wonder if Shapiro was somewhat influenced by the 2015 Presidential primaries while writing this. Honestly the parallels are so strong it almost felt like a political book. I had assumed Long was a fictional character meant to represent the anti-immigrant mindset of the pre WWII era. And so I was shocked when I looked him up and found him and his policies real, mirroring those of many in our current administration.
The end of the book felt even more contrived than the dialogue, but I appreciate what I gleaned about the artistic and political movements of the time.