The Muralist

by Barbara A. Shapiro

Book, 2015



Call number




Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2015


From the author of the New York Times bestseller The Art Forger come a thrilling new novel of art, history, love, and politics that traces the life and mysterious disappearance of a brilliant young artist on the eve of World War II. Alizee Benoit, an American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) vanishes in New York City in 1940 amid personal and political turmoil. No one knows that happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her artistic patron and political compatriot, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not her close-nit group of friends, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. And, some seventy years later, not her great-niece, Danielle Abrams, who while working at Christie's auction house uncovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind recently found works by those now famous Abstract Expressionist artists. Do they hold answers to the questions surrounding her missing aunt? Entwining the live of both historical and fictional characters, and moving between the past and the present, The Muralist plunges readers into the divisiveness of prewar politics and the largely forgotten plight of European refugees refused entrance to the United States. It captures both the inner working of todays New York art scene and the beginnings of the vibrant and quintessentially American school of Abstract Expressionism. B.A. Shaprio is a master at telling a gripping story while exploring provocative themes. In Alezee and Danielle she has created two unforgettable women, artists both, who compel us to ask, What happens when luminous talent collides with inexorable historical forces? Does great art have the power to change the world? And to what lengths should a person to thwart evil?… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member c.archer
This is an interesting historical fiction story with elements that include the early years of American abstract artists, the WPA, the Nazi occupation of France during WWII, a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, the U.S. failure to grant Jewish refugees visas, and a mysterious disappearance all
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connecting with the current time and a young woman determined to solve the mystery. I found plenty to keep my interest and spark my desire to know more. The book is well-written and researched, and the author has done a nice job of tying the two time periods together and connecting them back and forth throughout the book. It was a style that worked well for the subject matter.
I enjoyed the historic aspects of the book, in particular the disinterest by the general American population for receiving Jewish refugees from Europe. The subject matter is timely considering current political opinions concerning war refugees. I also enjoyed the background information on famous abstract artists: Pollock, Rothko, and Krasner.
I recommend this book to fans of historic fiction especially those with an interest in WWII or art history.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Muralist, B. A. Shapiro, author; Xe Sands, narrator.
In 1939, the reader is introduced to a brave young woman who when faced with the horrors that were facing her family became desperate in her attempt to save them. Alizee Benoit, an artist, is living in the United States and working for the
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WPA, The Works Project Administration, a program that is part of The New Deal that is designed to put people back to work, even artists and writers. Her parents are dead, but her siblings and extended family are all living in France. With the rise of Hitler they are facing great danger. They are trying to obtain visas to immigrate to America and Alizee has been solicited to try to help them. She is an American citizen. Through her work painting murals, she has had the opportunity to meet Eleanor Roosevelt and has asked for her help in obtaining visas for her family.
Alizee wants to use her art to influence the political situation and to illustrate the plight of the Jews. Some in the government are actively working against the emigration of Jews to America, trying to prevent or slow the issuance of visas for them. Eleanor is in favor of helping the Jews, as was Lyndon Johnson. Others in opposition to saving them are Breckinridge Long, Joseph Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh. The President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was of a mind to protect his election rather than to aid the Jews. Therefore, he is unwilling to do anything to rattle his constituents. They do not want war, they do not want the Jews, and he will not help Europe in its effort to defeat Hitler’s rise to power and jeopardize his political future. He waited until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to respond.
In 2015, Danielle, Alizee’s niece, discovers pieces of a mural, that she believes were her aunt’s, behind some paintings in a collection of art that has been sent to her to be identified and verified for auction. She believes that these pieces of a mural might have been painted by her Aunt Alizee who has been missing since 1940. Her efforts to prove this are thwarted as her boss believes they are Mark Rothko’s work and that her attempts to prove they are Alizee’s are useless and unwarranted. Her aunt worked for the WPA together with artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and Lee Krasner, before they achieved fame. It was a time when Picasso was just beginning to exhibit his abstract art and he was not appreciated fully. She believes her aunt’s art has been lost. Danielle begins to research everything she can find to figure out what happened to her aunt, in spite of her instructions to abandon her investigation.
Slowly, as the story bounces, sometimes uncomfortably, between 1939 and 2015, the heinous history of Hitler is revealed. It is tastefully done and will not alarm the reader as most of the information is already well known; the situation at home and abroad is not welcoming to Jews. The story is more interesting when it takes place in 1939 than in 2015, as Danielle searches for clues to her aunt’s final whereabouts. As the mystery unfolds, there is a surprising, unexpected conclusion. Woefully naïve, and emotionally unstable in some way, Alizee was not prepared for the danger she would face or for the power of her enemies. When she received letters from her relatives describing the dire situation they faced, she became unraveled and made foolish decisions. She believed in her cause but was up against a bureaucracy that was far more powerful and able than she was. Is this story plausible? Perhaps not, but for me, Alizee represents the brave souls who tried to effect change and save lives during those terrible days leading up to and including the Holocaust, and Danielle represents the need today to keep the memory alive so that it won’t happen again and so that we can be reminded of the need for the Jews to have a homeland in which to feel safe and welcome.
The history is interesting and accurate, but I found the story to be not as engaging as I would have liked since no major new idea was presented. Many people suffered in Europe and many people in many countries tried in vain to save their families. Most faced opposition from all avenues of escape. Some of the details in the book were nostalgic, like references to a Betty Crocker calendar. Since the book doesn’t dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust, it is not a difficult read in that sense, however, reliving the horrors, even on the fringes, could be difficult for Jews, especially those that were directly affected with family loss and property loss.
In conclusion, the book’s plot seemed naïve and not very credible. The book did raise a question for me, however. Is the sacrifice of one life to save many, an honorable effort? Is it a crime of conscience? If that person is perceived as an enemy does the verdict change? It is a philosophical problem that has long been debated. Like the ethical dilemma of The Trolley Problem, whom do you save and whom do you sacrifice is difficult to answer?
I listened to an audio and found the narrator became too involved with her
presentation, speaking in a glib tone at times, sometimes staccato and sometimes in too conversational a tone, at others her voice was too soft and melancholy, and at other times the sing song nature of her tone and presentation was distracting and hard to follow. She simply did not enhance the book, but rather seemed to be presenting herself more than the story. She over indulged herself in her interpretation. I have listened to other books narrated by her and have to admit that I was pleased with only one of the narrations. I have a print copy of this book, but I didn’t find the tale compelling enough to plow through it again.
In light of the situation today in the Middle East and an administration hesitant to enter the fray with a forceful response, one can only hope there will not be a catastrophe that forces this President’s hand. Regarding Syrian immigrants, the book has jumped to the forefront and is very current in its message about allowing immigrants into the country. The Syrians are fleeing in massive numbers and countries are fearful of accepting them since some will be terrorists bent on death and destruction. How does one determine who is righteous and who is not? However, there is no moral equivalent between the Jewish immigrants and the Syrian immigrants. Jews were trying to escape the people who were trying to kill them. They had not waged war against anyone. The Syrians are Muslims, and some Islamic extremists have waged war against the world, and the United States. It is not easy to know which Syrian Muslim is the enemy and which is not. It is a conundrum because they also do not seem interested in becoming part of our Democracy, but rather, some seem to want to create a Theocracy ruled by Islamic laws.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
A back-and-forth character driven historical novel with particular insight into the world of abstract painters like Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko(vich - who knew?). Shapiro creates two fictional characters - a WPA painter, Alizee Benoit, and her grand niece Danielle. Alizee
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disappeared from an asylum during WW II, and Danielle, a discouraged artist, finds some of Alizee's magnificent mural work and decides to track her down. In the process, the reader meets Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin (who is not as saintly as our parents recall him to be) as well as a radical political group trying to get the US to take in more European refugees, including Alizee's family.

The afterword does not make clear enough if all events cited in the book really occurred. For example, did Lyndon Johnson really illegally funnel refugees into Texas during the war?

A decent but not enthralling read. The Art Forger, her previous novel, was far superior.
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LibraryThing member trinityM82
It was educational because it is from the perspective of one of the painters who was employed by the WPA during the late 1930s and it also discusses the emergence of the surrealist painters, including Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasenberg. It also talks about how the governement tried to prevent
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people from coming from Europe during HItler's persecution. It is a little unrealistic at the end, and it gets tied into a bow a bit, but as a historical fiction it is interesting, especially if you enjoy art. It also has Eleanor Roosevelt as a character, which is kind of weird, but highlights her as a political figure and generates an interest in her
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
T3.5 It is always interesting to see how an author takes historical facts and mixes them with fictional characters to create a story. In this one she takes Krasner, Pollock and Mark Rothko, who in fact did work for the WPA in 1940, and mixes that with a character named Alize whom works alongside
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them. Alize is Jewish and her family in in France, she knows they are at risk and is trying every means possible to get them out.

Many discussions about art, creativity, the emotional highs and lows of the artists and the erratic actions of Pollock. Eleanor Roosevelt and her sponsoring of the artists and Breckinridge Long, a despicable man who wasted visas that could have let many more Jews into the United States. A very interesting read, taking place during a time of great political pressures. Shapiro uses two time lines in telling her story, Dani, who is trying to trace her aunt Alize, who had mysteriously disappeared after 1940, and of course Alize's

My only criticism is that at times it felt a bit preachy and the dialogue stilted. But, this is no way kept me from avidly enjoying this novel, love both art and history, and the story, both of them, flowed very well. It was quite fascinating reading about these Avant garde artists. Also loved the author's note which explained moved timelines and historical fact.

ARC from publisher.
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LibraryThing member librarygeek33
There’s an old saying which, I discovered, fittingly, is the translation of a French proverb: The more things change, the more they stay the same and the conflicts in this book mirror some of the headlines in the news today.
One primary story line in the books is the struggle between the
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isolationist movement in the United States circa 1940 against allowing refuges from Europe into the country and other groups and individuals who were sympathetic, and in the case of one of the main characters, were desperate to help relatives escape Nazi oppression.
This novel relates two stories in one with 2 main characters in 2 time periods. It begins in 2015 with Danielle Abrams whose great aunt Alizee Benoit, an artist, has seemed to have disappeared in 1940. The story is driven by the mystery of what happened to Alizee.I have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of books that bounce through different time zones and I found myself wanting to hurry through the chapters set in 2015 to get to the more (to me, anyway) Alizee’s more compelling story. In a way, thispropelled me through the book, so it may have been a good thing.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A worthy followup to The Art Forger, which I loved a few years ago. Maybe not quite as good as the earlier book, but still excellent, and another one I had a hard time not reading in one go.
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
A compelling story of an artist trying to get her family out of war-torn Europe in 1940 - a story complimented by that of her modern-day relation trying to trace her story. World War II is common enough in historical fiction, but I appreciated the approach here, of a novel set in the U.S. and
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building on the themes of American isolationism and artistic innovation that drive the characters to desperate action. Excellent reading.
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LibraryThing member krazy4katz
I didn't like this novel as much as The Art Forger, perhaps because there was less about art and more tragedy. I have read a lot of holocaust literature in my life and personally right now was just not the time for that sadness. However, the writing is beautiful and the story is interesting. If I
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were in a different mood I might have liked it much more. The most interesting part for me was the relationship between the painter and Eleanor Roosevelt.
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LibraryThing member juliecracchiolo
The latest B. A. Shapiro novel, after The Art Forger, delves into the art world in two centuries and with two artists.

In 2015, Danielle Abrams (Dani) works as a cataloguer for Christies in New York. A lapsed artist, Dani receives several paintings that have been found in an attic. They could be
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some undiscovered works by Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, or Mark Rothko. However, Dani sees something different; the paintings remind her of her great-aunt Alizee Benoit’s work. In the world of abstract expressionism, there has always seemed to be a missing link. Dani has always thought that work could be Alizee’s.

In1939, Alizee Benoit is working for the WPA (Works Progress Adminstration under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal). Her best friends are Jackson Pollock, Leo Krasner, and Mark Rothko. They are painting murals for various buildings, but their true passion is abstract expressionism.

Alizee is a Jew from France and has left her entire family there. As Hitler’s rise to power escalates, letters from her family become more and more desperate, begging her to help them obtain visas to get out. When she’s working on her art, she wants her paintings to reflect the Jewish crisis. When she’s working for the WPA but she’s forced to paint idyllic country scenes. Alizee gets to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, who becomes a champion of her art. This seems a tad implausible, but Shapiro is so deft as a writer, that it’s interesting but not a read-breaker.

Alizee’s family (her brother, aunt, uncle, and two cousins, one with a family) manage to get aboard the MS St. Louis. The plight of the 937 Jews trying to escape persecution was mentioned, but did not delve deep enough for me. That story is all but a footnote in history now, but readers who are curious can learn more about it in: Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust by Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller.

In the meantime, Dani discovers envelopes containing pieces of canvas behind the paintings that were recently discovered. Dani is also trying to uncover what happened to Alizee. She checked into a sanatorium in 1940 and simply disappeared.

The narrative weaves back and forth between the past and present, bring the art world of the mid-20th century to life. I had hoped to be swept away into this world while I read, but I was not. I was intrigued, but I didn’t find myself anxiously awaiting the time I could get back to the story. Therefore, I give The Muralist 4 out of 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member flourgirl49
The author is accomplished at writing historical fiction dealing with the art world - this was an absorbing read (as was "The Art Forger"), and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.
LibraryThing member sdunford
I loved this book, partially because it touched on many important parts of my life. I love historical fiction, studied art history, and have worked for a Jewish agency for over 20 years.

But the most important reason to love this book is simply because its well written, the characters are carefully
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drawn and develop within the plot. The story is like a braid, showing different point of views while always remaining a whole.

I definitely recommend this book
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Original publication date



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