I am a sucker for World War II stories. And I love novels that employ the “parallel stories” idea of two stories, one in the past and one in the present, that find each other in the end. Though technically this novel begins before the U.S. entered the conflict, Hitler and his atrocities feature prominently in the story.
Alizee Benoit is a WPA (Works Progress Administration) artist, helping to produce the murals that still stand in many government buildings today. (The local post office in my former Chicago neighborhood had a lovely one I liked to admire.) Her story is contrasted with that of her great-niece Danielle Abrams, a cataloger for Christie’s auctions. Danielle is fascinated with the family mystery of the disappearance of her great-aunt in 1940. Alizee was a promising artist, friends with Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, part of the abstract art movement that made her friends famous after the war. But there is no record of her after 1940. Her niece feels a definite kinship with her artistic aunt, and uses her position at Christie’s to see if she can solve the puzzle.
I’m not trained in art, but I am at least somewhat aware of the WPA, Rothko and Pollack, and of the isolationist politics America favored before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The novel served as a good introduction to all. And, oddly or sadly enough, is still a relevant reflection on our involvement with conflicts abroad still. That’s one thing I really enjoy about historical fiction – the good writers will not only provide a good story, but give you a feel for the era and you come away with an education on the time period. I felt The Muralist did a pretty good job delivering that. All the while you get to read about the bohemian life of a young artist, her hopes and desires, her fears for her family abroad, and get a feel for her soon-to-be famous friends.
There is some more adult content in the story, but nothing graphic. Though I found some plot points near the end of the book a little off and not quite in harmony with the rest of the book, and frankly a little more rushed than I would have preferred, I did enjoy the journey this book took me on. If you have any interest in visual art, NYC in the 1940s, or WWII stories in general, this would be one to try.