The high-stakes trade in fine art provides an atmospheric setting for Allison Amend’s second novel. Her two unhappy protagonists find dangerously tempting opportunities to satisfy their thwarted desires in this secretive marketplace, whose business practices Amend convincingly paints as considerably less lovely than the artworks being sold.
Elm Howells is a department head at Tinsley’s, the Manhattan auction house founded by her great-grandfather. Two years ago, her young son was swept away by a tsunami while vacationing in Thailand; Elm remains inconsolable, desperate to have another baby despite the qualms of her charming Irish husband and her middle-aged low fertility.
Gabriel Connois, a Spanish painter living in Paris, is sick of being a starving artist at age 42. Despite his considerable technical skills, he’s uneasily aware that he lacks the personal vision of his ancestor Marcel Connois, a renowned 19th-century painter. Gabriel is ripe for seduction when his glamorous new girlfriend, Colette, a French representative of Tinsley’s, introduces him to her “uncle,” Augustus Klinman, who offers him a lot of money to provide artworks in the style of his famous forebear, allegedly to decorate the rooms of a new luxury hotel.
Readers are likely to guess how these two trajectories will intersect even before an elderly New York woman shows Elm a pastel supposedly by Marcel Connois that she claims was a gift from a powerful lover. Amend isn’t aiming for mystery; instead, she creates suspense by charting in wincing detail Elm’s and Gabriel’s progress through ethically gray areas in the art market to unquestionably illegal acts.
Klinman plays on Gabriel’s resentment of the dealers and collectors who have previously disdained his work and urges him to move from imitations to outright fakes: “If they are going to try to keep you down,” Klinman argues, “then you employ any means necessary to pick yourself back up, yes?” A much-less-plausible plot device pushes Elm to act as Klinman’s go-between in the private sale of works she knows are forgeries. Her motive is to raise money to take advantage of an expensive new technology for getting pregnant.
The consequences aren’t as catastrophic as some of the wrongdoing (and wrongdoers) seem to merit in Amend’s well-wrought but oddly bloodless tale, which makes the art world machinations more interesting than the main characters. Although the author meticulously delineates their yearnings and frustrations, Elm and Gabriel aren’t particularly emotionally engaging, which makes their dilemmas less compelling than they should be. “A Nearly Perfect Copy” is regrettably true to its title: cleverly rendered but lacking the spark of a true original’s inspiration.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” which will be reissued in July.