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WITH A GEMLIKE FLAME by David Adams Cleveland


by David Adams Cleveland

Pub Date: July 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7867-0877-8

Like an unfortunately extended conversation with a boorish acquaintance, this art-world thriller is unable to sustain any interest in its story, thanks largely to a thoroughly irritating narrator.

Jordan Brooks arrives in Venice and is immediately beset by memories of a youth spent in the city, falling in love with art and with his wife. Now divorced, he seems to have lost most of that innocent infatuation and so makes his career as an art dealer. He’s come to Venice to take part in a bid for a painting with a shady and dramatic provenance. Brooks and several other dealers are champing at the bit to get a look at Leopardi Madonna, whose current owners (whoever they may be) claim it’s actually a Raphael that was assumed to have been destroyed during WWII. Once Brooks navigates the web of security around the painting and is finally allowed to view it, the question of its authenticity remains, but he believes there’s enough of a chance to make it worth pursuing. As the mysteries of the origin of the painting and the unsavory characters involved in its sale begin to unfold, an unexpected affair blooms between Brooks and Katie, an American graduate student studying in Venice. All of which could have been well and good—mixing the mystery genre with a decaying Venice and erotic, artistic sensibility that occasionally recalls Barry Unsworth’s Stone Virgin—if it weren’t for Jordan Brooks himself. From nearly the first page, in which art lecturer and curator Cleveland lets Brooks indulge in a pointed and too-obvious satire on multimedia artist Jenny Holzer, the character slouches toward the close with a foul mouth and cruel disposition that this first-novelist apparently mistakes for character. Brooks’s relationship with Katie is almost comically unconvincing, her persona being little more than a semiliterate male’s fantasy cartoon.

What might have made for a moderately interesting art-world mystery seems more like a sour-minded excuse for the author, in a fictional setting, to promulgate his views on art.