Review: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

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AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY
Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing; November 2011
978-0-446-57365-8
Paperback; 304 pages

 

Book Cover Synopsis

Lacey Yeager is young, captivating, and ambitious enough to take on the notoriously demanding art world of New York City. Groomed at Sotheby’s and hungry to keep climbing the social and career ladders put before her, Lacey charms men and women, old and young, rich and even richer. Her career sends her zipping all over Manhattan, the east coast, and even St. Petersburg, and her self-manufactured allure makes the reader wonder if it is not she who is the object of beauty. Her ascension to the highest tiers of New York parallels the soaring heights–and the darkest lows–of the art world and the country from the late 1990s through today.

With twenty-two lush, four-color art reproductions throughout, AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY is both a primer on the business of fine art collecting and a close study of the personalities that make it run. With this novel Steve Martin once again displays his compassion and keen skills of observation and understanding.

 

Review

This book doesn’t try to hide what it is: “a primer on the business of fine art collecting and a close study of the personalities that make it run.” While the book follows Lacey Yeager over the course of 15 or so years, from 1993 through roughly 2009, the book both is and isn’t about Lacey. AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY starts with the day before Lacey’s interview at Sotheby’s through the highs and lows of her career, through 9/11 and the stock market crash. The 1990s were a prime time to buy and deal fine art, and Steve Martin did an excellent job describing the art itself and the state of  the market, painting resale value, and painting the people who hunt, collect and are addicted fine art. And Lacey is the type of person who knew how to read the people around her and manipulate them for her gain… or pleasure.

I should go back a bit. AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY actually begins with a confession from the narrator Daniel Franks stating that, unless he writes his story about Lacey Yeager, he “will be unable to ever write about anything else.” Considering he’s a freelance journalist for several publications, the one most mentioned throughout the book being ARTnews, this would be a big deal for his career. Before we hear too much about Lacey, the first chapter ends with:

“I will tell you her story from my own recollection, from conversations I conducted with those around her, and, alas, from gossip: thank God this page is not a courtroom. If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events describe in this book, I don’t. I have found that–just as in real life–imaginations sometimes has to stand in for experience.” (p. 4)

The narrator himself admits that he is unreliable, and the story that follows, in part, is fictionalized. We can also conclude that even any story Daniel was given secondhand by Lacey is equally unreliable because Lacey herself is a flirt and witty schemer. She tries to commit to some male suitors, but she never wants to be exclusive. She looks for connections that’ll move her up the art collector circles and learns how t work the room for her own gain, while distancing herself from her girlfriends, family or others who have grown to care for her. She becomes an expert in American art movements and somehow begins her own collection even though she literally can’t afford it.

It’s a little difficult to discuss this book when there really isn’t a plot to it besides watching this girl spend 15 years of her life trying to make it in the fine art collector community. It’s this weird cross between William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You’re watching someone want to climb the social hierarchy in a very specific world and watching that specific world go from old money to new money, as the art collector world shifts from dead artists to contemporary, living artists. If that makes any sense.

If you’re okay with a novel that focuses more on the subject matter than a huge conflict, I’d definitely recommend this book. But if you’re looking for a conflict to drive the story rather than learning about fine art, than this might not be the book for you. It’s a work of fiction that’s almost written as a biography/non-fiction retelling of these two decades in the New York art scene. Personally, I really appreciated a different approach to the format of this novel. I read the majority of AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY in a day, so it is possible to get through it quickly, depending on how captivated you are with the subject matter.

4 out of 5
Personal copy
This review is part of the B.Y.O.B. Reading Challenge 2016.
This is Book 1 of 148 unread books I own.

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