B. A. Shapiro Turns Back the Century
As far as unique time periods go, the roaring twenties definitely stand apart in a class of their own as a strange transition period between the two World Wars, between the old and new ways of life. Regardless of which decade or even century we found ourselves in, one constant has pretty much always remained true: people love money, and some will do anything for their coveted fortune. The nature of financial crimes and their execution has shifted towards the digital realm in recent years, but I feel there is something to be said for the days of old when it was an entirely physical and mental endeavour… namely, it was much more entertaining. In The Collector’s Apprentice, B. A. Shapiro takes us back to those days with a story revolving around a nineteen-year-old girl caught in the midst of a giant scandal.
The story begins in the summer of 1922, as the young Paulien Mertens finds herself hiding in Paris under an assumed name after her fiance stole millions from her family, leaving the poor girl to take the blame. Trying to lead a new life for herself, she finds work as a model in various art galleries, until she makes the acquaintance of a wealthy American art collector, Edwin Bradley. He offers to take her back to Philadelphia and introduces her to Gertrude Stein’s inner circle. As her life seems to be settling down for the better, her fiance, George Everard comes back out of nowhere. What’s worse, her boss Edwin Bradley is found murdered, and once again the blame falls on the young girl. Knowing she cannot spend her life this way, she sets out to prove her innocence, get vengeance on the man responsible for her woes, and without forgetting to recover her father’s lost art collection.
A Stroll Through the Art Scene
The main plot of the book itself might be rather straightforward, at least in terms of what Paulien’s goals and motivations are, but everything which surrounds it is far from it. Shapiro does a fair amount of world-building and character introductions in the first half of the book, giving us a slow-paced tour of both 1920s Paris and Philadelphia. There is no question in my mind the author did all the necessary research considering the minute details she recreates those time periods with. She knows how to describe scenes and environments using all of the reader’s senses, the essence of showing rather than telling. She includes enough interesting tidbits of historical information here and there to save these excursions from becoming stale, and I found on the whole she accomplished her goal of building a realistic world for the story to take place in.
The aspect of this time period Shapiro really dives profoundly into is the art scene and various styles common of the time period, namely post-impressionism. Though I personally have some fondness for paintings, namely classic ones, I still found myself interested with the author’s exploration of this world. The sense of camaraderie between artists despite competing, their tenuous relationships with art critics and their overall philosophies about their line of work all had interesting elements to them. The assemblies at Gertrude Stein’s house were, in my opinion, some of the better parts of the book as they felt very natural while simultaneously being windows into some “behind-the-scenes” type of history, now further away than most of us realize.
Vengeance and Absolution
The first half of the book is indeed rather slow-paced, but once all the introductions and world-building have come to an end the events do begin to pick up rather quickly. The focus shifts almost entirely on the conflict between Paulien and George, following a sort of cat-and-mouse game where the latter tries to get back into the former’s life in an attempt to swindle her boss. We witness her character developing from a young teen into a strong and sharp-minded woman, one torn apart by the simple fact her employer now owns the seven lost paintings from her father’s collection. The stakes of her decision of whether or not to side with George against her employer to retrieve the paintings feel very real, to the point where I have to say this was one of the most believable internal conflicts I’ve witnessed a character go through in a while.
There is also a second narration happening in-between the chapters, simply labelled as “The Trial”. Though at the start it felt a bit confusing, it became apparent I was reading about Paulien’s trial for the murder of Edwin Bradley. On one hand I enjoyed this addition to the book as it helped to break up the sometimes-slow and historically-driven narration with some good old-fashioned courtroom drama. On the other hand, I felt it spoiled a little too much and made a couple of the twists in the main story not too surprising. Overall though I will say it probably enhances the overall story more than anything else, because after all, it is always pleasing to put together a puzzle where the pieces aren’t presented always presented in the correct order.
The Final Verdict
With all being said and done, The Collector’s Apprentice by B. A. Shapiro is a fantastic historical mystery which pays as much attention to the characters and the setting as the plot itself. While it does go a bit much into the fine details of art, on the whole it remains a captivating excursion into the 1920s wrapped around a mystery with its fair share of intrigue and character conflicts. If you enjoy historical mysteries centred around art, then I am confident you will enjoy this book from start to finish.
B.A. Shapiro is an American author currently living in Boston, and she is the kind of writer who began her career later into her life, though it hasn’t stopped her from publishing multiple novels, screenplays and a non-fiction book, many of which have garnered her a rather decent amount of praise. Some of her better-known books include The Safe Room, See No Evil and The Art Forger.