three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
By: 
Steve Martin
user_rating: 
0

A-An Object of BeautySteve Martin needs little introduction. Between his movies, plays, children's books, bluegrass albums, and New Yorker essays, he's also a fine novelist (Shopgirl [2000], The Pleasure of My Company 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2004), memoirist (Born Standing Up 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2008), and art collector. An Object of Beauty is a comedy of manners centered on the art world.

The Story: In early 1990s New York, Lacey Yeager, an ambitious, charming, and shrewd 23-year-old femme fatale, rises in the art world. "From her experience with men," Martin writes, "she knew that lust made them controllable, and she wondered if this principle could be applied to the art business." Narrated by Daniel Franks, a freelance art critic obsessed with Lacey since college, An Object of Beauty follows Lacey's determination to make money and a name for herself over the next 15 years, first at Sotheby's, then at a private art gallery, and finally at her own gallery. But her climb up the social ladder results in deceit, exploitation, fraud, and disappointment as she compromises her own and others' values to pay for her success.
Grand Central Publishing. 295 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780446573641

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"It takes a certain nimbleness to play the dual roles of proxy art-history professor and compelling storyteller without falling off the literary balance beam. Martin, wry, wise, and keenly observant, rarely misses a step." Leah Greenblatt

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"His minor characters (a dopey receptionist, a kinky F.B.I. agent, a conveniently bulimic dealer) are as carefully drawn as his major ones. There are also amusing walk-ons from real life, like the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, the dealer Larry Gagosian and, in the form of a stranger on a train, John Updike." Alexandra Jacobs

Spectator (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is [subtle] ... because it has something intelligent to say about how taste and collecting have changed over the past ten years and how the easily understandable movements of the Sixties and Seventies have given way to the pluralism of today, where anything goes. It shows how absurd most collectors and curators have become in their attempts to keep abreast of this shifting scene where money is no more real than the art it helps to buy." Ian Dunlop

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite its sexual frankness, An Object of Beauty reminds me of those novels of manners written by Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells back when John Singer Sargent was painting members of the enviable class. ... Insightful but modest, sophisticated but deeply skeptical of po-mo gobbledygook, he offers engaging commentary on Milton Avery, Picasso, Warhol and many others." Ron Charles

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though infused with Martin's trademark wit, the story is first and foremost a probing investigation of human nature and the temptations of money and recognition. ... Martin, who reveals himself to be quite familiar with Lacey's professional milieu, repeatedly gets showy with his knowledge of modern and contemporary art, and this inevitably bogs down the story in places." Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Guardian (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"It could have been a Bonfire of the Vanities for the Sotheby's generation but, instead, Martin, an art collector in his spare time, keeps slowing the pace by injecting oddly didactic passages on various artists. ... While the last quarter of An Object of Beauty perks up considerably, the rest is an opportunity sadly missed." Elizabeth Day

Wall Street Journal HH
"Problem No. 1 here is Daniel, whose role as narrator so eclipses his presence as a character that he seems more voice-over than earthling. ... It turns out that the main event is a series of disquisitions about modern art, accompanied by reproductions of the works--by the likes of Milton Avery, Andy Warhol and Robert Gober--under discussion." Donna Rifkind

Critical Summary

Critics admired Steve Martin for being a Renaissance man--after all, there are few comedians and actors who are also serious (and successful) writers. And most agreed that An Object of Beauty, more than a simple comic tale, is both a smart satire and a serious novel of manners. Martin shares his ample knowledge of Lacey's profession and the art world; indeed, his ruminations enlightened more than a few reviewers. Some critics, however, found the novel lacking. Complaints ranged from flat prose to a confused plot, a nearly invisible first person narrator, an unlikable Lacey, some tangential plot lines, and prosaic discussions of art. Still, even the detractors admitted that the book's premise "is a good one, filled with all sorts of juicy potential" (Guardian). In the end, An Object of Beauty, enhanced by color reproductions of famous paintings, should delight most readers--art aficionados or not.