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What We're Reading Now: "An Object of Beauty," by Steve Martin

I just turned in a too short review/recommendation for RELEVANT Magazine of Steve Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty. I wish I had more than 100 words to talk about how I much I enjoyed this book, which is set in the NYC art scene around the turn of the millennium. It’s not the great American novel or anything, but I needed more words to defend the book from a couple scathing (even mean) reviews written by art world insiders. Andrew Butterfield, an art dealer, wrote in The New Republic: “The writing in the novel is by turns, dull, flat, ugly, and inept. Especially grim are the passages when anyone says anything about art.”  Scott Indrisek, the senior editor of Modern Painters, questioned Martin’s wisdom in even attempting the book. Steve Martin, he said, is “the living embodiment of the phrase ‘spreading yourself too thin.’ With his third novel…Martin merges two of his hobbies – art and fiction writing – and spawns a limp, hackneyed saga of New York’s culture scene from 1997 through the present day.” I saw these reviews and wondered if we had been reading different books. The promise of Martin’s earlier novellas, Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, both of which I liked, is fulfilled in An Object of Beauty.

Martin is the perfect guide into the rarified air of the fine arts industry – the auction houses, galleries, and museums, as well as the egos and eccentricities of the dealers, collectors, and artists. As I said in my RELEVANT recommendation, he is passionate about the art (he’s been a collector since the ’70s) but seems less invested in the “scene.” He can write about it – can even write about his ambitious, cunning, and amoral protagonist, who starts as an intern at Sotheby’s and eventually runs her own gallery – in prose that is warm, ironic without being snarky, and occasionally even beautiful. Those were the passages I read out loud to my wife.

I’m not sure An Object of Beauty qualifies as satire (mainly because I haven’t decided if Martin intended it to be satire), but it manages to do what the best satires do best: illuminate a new world for outsiders, while holding up an uncomfortable mirror for entrenched insiders. Ignore the haters. Give this book a chance.

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