'An Object of Beauty': Steve Martin's light but satisfying novel of the New York art scene
Book review: Steve Martin's "An Object of Beauty, " a novel of New York's art scene, showcases how the famous comedian and actor has developed a subdued and wryly humorous storytelling style.
Special to The Seattle Times
'An Object of Beauty'
by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing, 292 pp., $26.99
With "An Object of Beauty," comedian Steve Martin has delivered a novel about New York's cloistered art scene that is as elegant and full of secrets as an Upper East Side apartment tower.
At the center of it all is the beautiful, precocious 20-something art dealer Lacey Yeager, who gets her big break in Manhattan's cutthroat art market when she's hired to catalog and measure 19th-century works in the basement of Sotheby's auction house.
A fast learner, Lacey knows how to makes things happen for herself, and it's not long before she's wheeling and dealing in multimillion-dollar paintings and carving a niche in the contemporary art scene.
She's a downtown girl thriving in an uptown world.
Martin ("Shopgirl") has peppered this light but satisfying novel, set between boom years of the late 1990s and the Wall Street crash of 2008, with tales of sex under the gaze of masterpieces, actual pictures of masterpieces and behind-the-scenes intrigue, but this is really a character portrait of a hard-to-love young woman who risks paying a little too high a price for her newfound status.
A "Breakfast at Tiffany's" vibe runs through the novel, partly due to Lacey's rise from humbler beginnings to the upper echelons of Manhattan art society, but also because the narrator isn't Lacey but an art-world journalist friend and admirer named Daniel Franks, to whom Lacey relays her juicy escapades.
The story we're reading in this novel is the one he's pieced together based on those conversations. As a result, Lacey remains tantalizingly out of reach, as she is to many who cross her path.
The Lacey we read about is a piece of work. She's blindly ambitious and willing to use her own body to woo prospective art buyers. She's as much "an object of beauty" as the pieces she's peddling, and she is not ashamed to talk about it.
Martin, formerly a "wild and crazy guy," has matured into the most subdued and wryly humorous of storytellers. We see a lot of him in Daniel.
Hence this wry observation after Lacey realizes she had a hand in selling a Matisse to a rich French art collector she's having a fling with: "The feeling that swept over her was a bit like that of a gambler who gets lucky the first time out and leaves the table thinking, This is easy."
As Daniel observes early in the novel, Lacey's experience sizing up paintings turns her into "an efficient computer of values" who develops an instinctual "calculus of worth."
If only this cunning creature didn't measure her own self-worth in such a coldly mechanical way.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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