The Muralist: A Novel



B. A. Shapiro tops her wonderful previous novel The Art Forger with a second triumph. The Muralist engagingly tackles some very important historical topics, weaving them together with a current day story.

Alizée Benoit is a fictional young American artist, worried about her family in France under Nazi occupation during World War II. The novel touches on historical elements like the increasing difficulty for Jews to get out of Europe, the disastrous story of the passengers aboard the St. Louis, and the delay in getting news about loved ones during that time. The story exposes the dirty politics of the isolationists during Roosevelt's administration, and how Breckenridge Long managed to withhold hundreds of thousands of desperately needed visas from Jewish European refugees, but also explores how the WPA, President Roosevelt's Works Progress (later renamed Projects) Administration created jobs for so many Americans and supported Eleanor Roosevelt's special interest and attention to creating work for artists. The evolution of Abstract Expressionism—as practiced by artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and William de Kooning—is told through the lens of Alizée’s budding career.

Danielle Abrams is a lapsed artist working at Christie's auction house when she discovers hidden unsigned paintings attached to the backs of canvases that appear to be painted by Pollock, Rothko, and Krasner. She sets out to begin the process of authenticating these possibly huge artistic discoveries, while harboring the idea that the hidden paintings were created by none other than her own long lost great aunt Alizée Benoit. Danielle knows little about Alizée and slowly begins to fill in the picture of her immensely talented relative, discovering Eleanor Roosevelt's strong role as an advisor to her husband in the White House, her heartfelt regret for failing to save Europe's refugees and her passionate devotion to the arts.

Though a work of fiction, The Muralist’s historical foundation depicts how and why most Americans were uninformed, apathetic or actively anti-involvement in occupied Europe under Hitler's rule. I heartily recommend The Muralist and look forward to the next addition to B. A. Shapiro's oeuvre.

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Read the first chapter of The Muralist here.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Algonquin Books

  1. The Muralist exposes many facts about the situation in the United States before World War II, including the denial of visas to qualified refugees, the majority of the country’s opposition to entering the war, and the open discrimination against Jews. Did you find any of this surprising? In the wake of the Allies’ victory, how has history generally portrayed this prewar period in America? Do you think there are parallels to the United States in the twenty-first century?

  2. The issue of refugees running from war and oppression is as current today as it was during World War II. What similarities and differences to do you see between nations’ responses today and those before World War II? What about in attitudes among U.S. citizens?

  3. The author places Alizée, a fictional character, among the real-life artists who created the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York in the 1940s. How did living there at that time inform their art? Is there something quintessentially American about Abstract Expressionism?

  4. Alizée and her friends are employed by the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program funded by the government to give work to artists. Do you think a government program like this could happen in today’s political climate? How are art and artists valued or supported differently in today's society?

  5. In what ways might artistic talent and mental illness be linked? Did you see manifestations of a link in Alizée? How did that differ from the portrayals of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko?

  6. Alizée wants to believe that art can change the world. Does art have the power to affect history? Are there examples of its doing so in the past?

  7. Alizée decides to be part of an assassination attempt in the hopes of thwarting a greater wrong. Do you agree with what she does? Are there times when such decisions are justifiable? What was her state of mind when she made the decision?

  8. How much do the times in which you live affect your individual life choices? How might Alizée’s life have been different if she had lived in the twenty-first century? Would her artistic dreams have been realized? How does Alizée’s artistic life compare with that of her grandniece Danielle?

  9. When Danielle finds out the truth about what happened to her aunt, she seems able to become the artist she was meant to be. Why? Which was more important: finding the answer, or asking the question in the first place?

  10. Were you surprised at how Alizée’s life turned out? Relieved? How do you think Alizée felt about it? How did her art define her life, even amid drastic change?

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