Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 31
Here’s my book review of The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber.
The protagonist of this novel is Chaz Wilmot, an accomplished fine arts painter. He’s a brilliant technician but insecure about his creativity. His insecurity is rooted in the emotional abuse he received from his father, who was also a famous painter and intensely jealous of his son.
Wilmot is also pretty much a failure at his personal relationships. He’s divorced two wives, and he’s not a particularly attentive father to his children. Then, a bizarre thing happens. Chaz volunteers as a patient in a pharmaceutical research study. He’s given a psychoactive drug that induces hallucinations. But in Chaz, the effect is unique and disturbing – he seems to bi-locate physically as well as mentally into another person’s body at another time in history. He finds himself living in Madrid in the 1650s having assumed the identity of Diego Velázquez, one of the most supremely gifted painters who ever lived.
In this past life, Chaz learns all of Velázquez’s techniques, one brushstroke at a time. Back in the present day, international criminals discover his talent and blackmail him into forging a Velasquez painting that has been missing for centuries.
I find two things remarkable about this book. First, perhaps because Gruber is married to a painter, his descriptions of painterly technique are vivid and detailed. It’s a short course in classical painting. Painters especially revere Velázquez’s Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor), which shows a little princess surrounded by her servants in the Spanish court. Pablo Picasso was so obsessed that he painted 58 versions of it. There are other renditions by renowned artists such as Dali, Degas, Goya, Sargent, and Whistler.
Also remarkable is the theme of altered mental states. As Chaz shuttles back and forth between the centuries, he begins to wonder – what is reality? What is personal identity? How can you be so sure you are the person you think you are?
And – what difference would it make if your favorite painting by an old master were just a masterful fake?
For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My forthcoming novel about an art scandal in 1890s Paris is Bonfire of the Vanderbilts. Be sure to catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.