An Object of Beauty, by Renaissance man Steve Martin, is the tale of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young Manhattan transplant with dreams of becoming a world-class art buyer and collector. We follow Lacey’s trajectory from unpaid intern at Sotheby’s to gallery-owner and tastemaker, and observe the emotional and professional wreckage she creates along the way. Told from the point-of-view of her college friend Daniel, we are privy to many of Lacey’s private moments and personal failings.
I generally enjoy these sorts of longitudinal character studies, but for a handful of reasons, An Object of Beauty failed to wow me. It’s one of those books that I simultaneously liked and didn’t like, averaging out to a “it was good, but not great” sort of feeling. I certainly don’t regret reading it, but I don’t think its story or writing will stick with me, the way other novels have.
Like the nerd I am, I actually really liked the information about the art collecting scene. Lacey’s journey through the 1990s art world, a boom time for contemporary artists and collectors alike, was captivating; the marked differences between the SoHo art galleries and Chelsea and Upper Manhattan were too silly not to be true. Art collecting is something I’m not familiar with at ALL, and the ease and clarity with which Martin not only educates the reader, but also dissects for us its silliness and its fruitless search for the next big thing, is wonderful. It’s an interesting look behind the scenes, and Martin’s real-life participation in it gives the novel a patina of truth. Through it all, you do get the sense that Lacey–and Martin–really are moved by the power of art. I loved the inclusion of reproductions of the artworks mentioned in the text, too; it saved me from having to Google them to see them for myself!
However, other stylistic and thematic choices were not as successful. Did the narration feel a bit like a movie-voiceover to anyone else? There is a lot of telling–the narrator telling us of Lacey’s charm, her ability to work a room, her impulsiveness, her slyness–and not quite enough showing. I could easily see this, like Martin’s first novel Shopgirl, becoming a movie, partly because it is narrated like one.
In a related complaint, I would have liked this told from Lacey’s point-of-view, with Lacey’s voice describing her actions and thoughts. The conceit that the novel I was reading was actually written by her friend Daniel was too cute for me, and it allows Lacey to remain a cipher. While I understand that unreadable characters like Lacey are a legitimate tool to be used in novels, it also frustrates me–especially when it’s a beautiful woman, framed through her relationship to a man. Why can’t the woman speak for herself? What was Daniel’s importance to the plot, other than as the recorder of Lacey’s experiences?
Finally, I am super-touchy about inclusion of (highlight for spoiler) 9/11 in novels, especially novels where the event is incidental and not the driving plot point. To me, it just has the event of cheapening 9/11, using it to shock the reader at the sudden twist of its presence. (I’m sure I would have had a rage stroke had I watched Remember Me). Seeing it here wasn’t terrible, as the novel does follow Lacey through the ’90s and into the 2000s, but I still ground my teeth a bit. (My, I’m grumpy today!)
Martin certainly has established a distinct writing style–cool, external rather than internal, smooth. It’s actually much like how I imagine Lacey would write. I think Martin’s greatest accomplishment, however, was writing about art collection with an affectionate, yet critical, eye. I’d like to see a nonfiction book about art from him next!
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Bookwanderer Tagline: “She started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.”