A potentially valuable work of art generates familial animosity, legal drama, and political intrigue in this debut novel.
Nick Jaffe is a successful artist in his late 70s living in Sarasota, Florida, who’s inclined toward frothing diatribes about the shallowness of modern art—particularly its embrace of abstraction. He’s known for creating figurative pictures, which are generally regarded as beautiful, if unfashionable. Nick confides in Robert Ainsley—the owner of the art gallery that exhibits and sells his work—that he possesses what appears to be a painting by Ty Bromley that, if authentic, could be worth untold millions. In the 1960s, when Nick studied art in New York City, he was close friends with Bromley, but they had a falling-out over their conflicting opinions on the nature of art. Bromley later became a celebrity for producing precisely the kind of work Nick despised. The old artist remains maddeningly vague about the painting’s provenance, but he entrusts it to Robert for safekeeping, anxious that his own wayward adult son, David, might attempt to steal it. When Nick dies, he leaves all of his art to Robert, who, in turn, has the Bromley authenticated by experts. David stages an open war for the Bromley’s ownership, and as publicity around it grows, a nefarious Russian oligarch and a despot from a nation called El Pico make a bid for it, too. Meanwhile, Robert attempts to repair his broken marriage. Debut author Mann has conjured a deliciously eclectic drama that sharply satirizes pretention and venality in the professional art world. Throughout the novel, his knowledge of both art and the law is redoubtable—he’s a lawyer by profession—and his prose is self-assured and inventive; the Bromley painting even gets a chance to speak for itself in a chapter titled “First Painting Singular.” Undergirding the drama and high jinks is a serious consideration of what truly counts as art—or, more precisely, a presentation of the great debate about what it means for something to truly be beautiful. As a result, Mann’s inaugural effort is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
A lively art-world drama that tackles grand themes.