The Muralist: A Novel

  • By B.A. Shapiro
  • Algonquin Books
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by M.K. Tod
  • December 10, 2015

An artistic tale set in a world at the brink of war.

The Great Depression put millions of Americans out of work, and the U.S. government responded with a range of welfare and social programs. Eventually, under the auspices of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt sponsored the Work Projects Administration, an ambitious effort to create jobs through public works. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA constructed new parks, bridges, schools, and roads for communities across the nation.

Beyond such traditional infrastructure projects, the WPA implemented Federal Project Number One, or Federal One, to employ musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy works. As a strong supporter of the arts, Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied on behalf of Federal One and defended the program against congressional critics, of whom Martin Dies, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was the most vocal, believing the program fostered those with communist sympathies.

Federal One is the basis for B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, in which a group of artists is paid to create murals for state and federal public buildings. Real-life artists Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock participated in Federal One and are central characters in Shapiro’s latest novel, along with the fictional Alizée Benoit.

The story opens in 2015, with the discovery of three hidden paintings attached to the backs of canvases submitted to an auction house for appraisal. Danielle, the woman who makes the discovery, feels these paintings bear a striking resemblance in style and form to Alizée Benoit’s two surviving works of art. Danielle, Alizée’s great-niece, is determined to prove their authenticity and, if possible, solve the mystery of her great-aunt’s disappearance in 1940.

A parallel story opens in 1939, with Europe on the brink of war and Alizée growing increasingly frantic to rescue her Jewish family from France. Securing exit visas for them is the only hope; however, the visa process is fraught with difficulty and severely hampered by the isolationist politics practiced by Breckinridge Long, assistant secretary of state and the man in charge of America’s visa program.

Eleanor Roosevelt befriends Alizée and takes an interest in her work. As time progresses, the first lady becomes a supporter of abstract art, going so far as to convince those managing the murals program to authorize two murals with an abstract style.

Eleanor is also a strong champion for Jewish refugees seeking asylum outside Europe and tries, unsuccessfully, to help Alizée secure the necessary visas. Given today’s refugee crisis, the concerns surrounding admittance of outsiders in World War II sound eerily familiar: “People are afraid immigrants will take jobs from Americans. Or worse, that they’re German spies in disguise, the Fifth Column, they call them. There’s a lot of opposition.”

Shifting back and forth between Danielle and Alizée’s stories, The Muralist explores several themes: the tragic circumstances of Europe’s Jews; the divisive politics of many influential Americans; the devastating effects of the Depression; the bonds of family; the psychological fragility of great artists; and the beginnings of the American school of abstract expressionism.

Shapiro’s writing pulses with energy when exploring the passionate obsession experienced by great artists and when describing concepts central to abstract expressionism — the artists’ search for new forms of expression, canvases filled with color and abstract forms, works grounded in personal experience, the struggle between self-expression, and the chaos of the unconscious.

“She moved from one painting to another. Splashing yellows, here. Swirling greens, there. Purple. Red. She flung one that wasn’t working to the floor, picked it up, sliced it with a deep rose, threw it down again...Time slipped. There was nothing but the canvases.”

While two voices dominate, Shapiro brings in other viewpoint characters — Rothko, Krasner, and Eleanor Roosevelt — a choice that distracts from the forward momentum of the plot and the intensity of Alizée’s dilemma. Eleanor’s voice in particular seems unnecessary. In addition, the incorporation of so many complex themes means that no single one gets the attention it deserves, while shifting from past to present — from Alizée’s struggles to Danielle’s sleuthing — also disrupts the flow.

As historical fiction, though, The Muralist brings the time period and setting to life. Readers will appreciate Shapiro’s seamless integration of fact into the story and will feel immersed in a time when the world tipped into chaos. Art, history, and mystery — an intriguing and satisfying blend.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and as an e-book from AmazonNook, Kobo, Google Play, and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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