Given my limited amount of money, I always read a ton of reviews (NOT on amazon) before I buy a book, so it was with some measure of disappointment that I noticed that Steve Martin's latest had a number of very mixed reviews, with the majority of them being negative. I bought it anyway. I loved Shopgirl and found his autobiography riveting, so I plonked down some money for the hardcover.
I find myself agreeing with the majority of these reviewers. I also agree with them on the strength of this book: Martin's keen and acerbic critique of the art market. A well-known art collector, his book soars when the focus shifts from the weak characters to the art-selling market and the forces that determine what sells and why it sells (or not is probably equally important). Martin's love of art and a real vicious cynicism about the art market is what makes this book worth buying. Art is like currency. If you believe a dollar is worth a dollar, then it's worth a dollar. If you look at a second time and you see that it's only paper. Well.
Essentially, this is a non-fiction book with a fiction premise. The non-fiction bits work brilliantly, and the fiction bits are exceptionally problematic. There are glaring similarities to another book that works beautifully that is set in New York with a problematic “heroine” and a passive narrator and that is Breakfast at Tiffany's. I’m surprised that none of the reviews I’ve read have mentioned this. Perhaps Capote’s book works better because it’s a novella and Capote doesn’t give us time to parse out Holly Golightly’s motives. We just accept them because it’s such a whirlwind of a story. Perhaps it works better because we never leave the narrator. Perhaps it works better because Holly Golightly comes to New York to transform herself from a hick farm girl from a Podunk town in the middle of nowhere to, well, Holly Golightly. Lacey Yeager arrives fully formed to realize her ambitions. She doesn’t transform; the art world around her transforms.
Aside from these comparisons, generally speaking if you write a novel then you usually have a dilemma of sorts. A character has an epiphany. Falls in loves. Falls out of love. Kills someone. Falls from grace. A tragedy. Something HAPPENS. Lacey Yeager, the protagonist of An Object of Beauty, faces no dilemmas, suffers no tragedy. And the only person who you could honestly say that she loves is the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. There’s no explanation for why she’s basically nothing more than an ambitious sociopath. The one possible moral dilemma that she faces in the book is eliminated by a quip. I think you can safely say that she basically quips her way through this book. She’s something of a monster and yet everyone loves her?
And I guess that was what Martin was trying to do, have Lacey Yeager be a metaphor for the art market. How art has become nothing more than a commodity. It’s all for sale to the highest bidder. As is she. She’s beautiful in the eye of the beholder. She is loved because she always becomes what the other person wants to see. Ultimately, I think Martin was trying to have her be both a work of art but also emblematic of the art market. Sadly, she’s more art market than art. Heartless, ambitious, mercenary, and without a soul, this construct falls apart. I think that if she had had one failure, one setback that she actually admitted was a setback, one scene where her innocence was lost, it would have salvaged this book. But we start off the book with a Lacey who is without a moral core and twenty years later we have the same woman. She doesn’t move emotionally one bit. The one possible moral dilemma is almost a throwaway plot line, and the opportunity to humanize this character was lost.
As cynical and funny and biting as Steve Martin is about the art world, his love of art does come through here and there. And yet by the end of this book the art is overwhelmed; it has become as soulless as Lacey.