Set in the New York City art world spanning the early ’90s to the present, AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY chronicles the rise and fall of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious, charming and reckless woman who never met a rule she wouldn’t break. She and the narrator, Daniel Franks, go way back, having studied art history together in college. “My goal, once I learned that my artistic ambitions were not accompanied by artistic talent, was to learn to write about art with effortless clarity.” We follow them to the city, where Lacey gets a job at Sotheby’s at age 23, “at a time when the art world was building offshore like a developing hurricane.”
In the basement bins of Sotheby’s, cataloguing 19th-century pictures, Lacey grasps the fundamentals of what constitutes great art, learning to distinguish a print from a painting, an etching from a lithograph. At night she cuts a wide swath through the East Village night life, sleeping with whomever she chooses but never getting entangled, leaving disappointed suitors in her wake.
In the Sotheby’s lunchroom, Lacey meets Patrice Claire, a French millionaire and art collector. Soon she is attending art auctions upstairs and working on the fourth floor. Patrice joins the ranks of her many lovers, along with a downtown deejay and sometime artist named Jonah Marsh. She and Jonah drop X together, and in her drug-induced dream she “learns” that her grandmother, who posed for American artist Maxfield Parrish back in the day, is ill. Shortly after she returns from visiting grandma in Atlanta, Lacey surprises her friends by purchasing an uptown townhouse, and is quietly dismissed from her job at Sotheby’s. (Daniel knows the source of her windfall, but for several hundred pages, he’s not telling.)
Undaunted, Lacey lands on her feet at Barton Talley’s uptown gallery, and indulges in a little art collecting and selling on her own behalf. Her ambitions grow with her knowledge and connections, and she continues to eschew romantic entanglements (although not sex!), choosing instead to concentrate on opening her own gallery in Chelsea. In the meantime, Daniel toils at his writing career and begins a careful romance with Tanya Ross, one of Lacey’s old co-workers at Sotheby’s.
While Daniel has changed some of the names in this roman à clef, real-life artists, personalities and even paintings make an appearance. A cordial and distinguished gentleman whom Lacey meets on the train to Washington D.C. turns out to be John Updike. Some paintings that pass through Lacey’s life are reproduced in the book, providing easily digested mini-lessons in art history. Along with Steve Martin’s refreshing command of the language, these facets compel the reader along in the novel.
In the end, however, Daniel’s lack of engagement with Lacey is contagious. Despite being an avid chronicler of her charms (and a one-time college lover), he is able to present her as a “science project.” “I was able to enjoy the best parts of her without becoming ensnared,” he tells us, but I wonder if this is not a dangerous viewpoint with which to keep a reader engaged for nearly 300 pages. One gets the feeling that Martin crafted this novel to share with us his love of the art and his knowledge of the art world. But as Daniel holds Lacey at arm’s length despite acknowledging her prodigious, amoral charms, the reader is not as moved as she might have been had the author chosen a different path into the story.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on November 3, 2011
An Object of Beauty