BY KATE FLAHERTY ’19
Art, deception, love and murder are the centerpieces of B.A. Shapiro’s historical mystery novel, “The Collector’s Apprentice.” Shapiro, whose 2012 novel “The Art Forger” became a New York Times best-seller, delivers a lyrical and elegant story set in 1920s Paris and Philadelphia. Shapiro weaves in the lives of dozens of historical figures like Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein, immersing the reader in a world of postImpressionist artists.
“The Collector’s Apprentice” follows disowned socialite Paulien Mertens, who is on the run from police. Falsely accused of participating in a Ponzi scheme with her fiance, Paulien escapes to Paris, where she assumes a new identity as Vivienne Gregsby. She dreams of someday opening her own art museum, and in a twist of fate, meets millionaire art collector Dr. Edwin Bradley. Despite his brash attitude and unconventional way of collecting art, Paulien’s vast knowledge of post-Impressionism and her sharp eye lands her a job as Bradley’s secretary, and later as his apprentice. However, the higher her status, the bigger a target she becomes for greedy businessmen and conmen, as she stands to inherit millions from Dr. Bradley’s art collection. Paulien is ultimately caught at the center of another crime, this time a murder.
Shapiro’s vivid writing style was compelling and engaging. Whether a scene was set in a simple boarding house room or Gertrude Stein’s art-covered mansion, I felt as though I was in the room with the characters. Shapiro describes surroundings with enough detail to give the reader a clear lifelike picture, but not so much that it is overwhelming. Though I was initially thrown off by Shapiro’s unusual choice of third-person present-tense narration, I found that it worked well with the story. For many of her characters, Shapiro writes with a richness that brings them to life. Even without dialogue, the reader can see the characters’ expressions and movements, giving them distinct individual personalities.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Shapiro’s writing style, I was not a huge fan of the novel’s central character, Paulien. Even when she is put in difficult and deadly situations, her privilege always seems to dominate. Fleeing to Paris seemed more like an impromptu study abroad than an exile, as she managed to get by with few problems and ultimately found a high-paying job in a field she loved. The trauma of the situation did not show as strongly as it could have or should have. I felt as though Paulien had little substance beyond her knowledge and love of art. She felt overly courageous and overconfident, with few flaws other than her occasional naivete.
Those who are interested in art, art history and mysteries would benefit from reading “The Collector’s Apprentice.” While I personally did not enjoy the main character or find her motivations interesting or compelling, I still greatly enjoyed the experience of reading the novel. Those who enjoy Shapiro might also enjoy stories by Lisa See and Isabel Allende, who share a similar lyrical writing style.