"I reached Paris early in the summer of 1939," begins narrator David Halifax. Following in the footsteps of another generation of American expatriates, he has come to Paris for the sake of art (in his case, at the atelier of the temperamental and brilliant Alexander Pankratov). And like those earlier artists, he has arrived at a particularly crucial moment, as France is simultaneously preparing for and ignoring the threat of war. David vows to ignore the vagaries of the quotidian, however, immersing himself in his painting, down to
the minutest detail, so that it would stop being the whole picture and would break down into its individual parts, which were different from what the parts had been in reality. Now they were fragments of a different thing, a thing all by itself. But the ghost of the canvas underneath, the reminder of it, would always bring you back into the world from which the painting had emerged, many incarnations ago.
And of course, he isbrought back to the world: far from being the muse of escape, his talent will be the siren that draws him irrevocably into the harsh world of war. When Pankratov recruits David as part of the movement to replace priceless French-owned paintings with forgeries before the Germans seize them, the young artist quickly becomes absorbed by the very idea of forgery, by the necessity to adopt another identity, to live and breathe and be the master he copies. But when their lives depend on a final forgery--one so audacious that it will strike to the core of Hitler's own artistic obsessions--philosophy gives way to breathless suspense, as the pair journey through Normandy at the moment of the Allied invasion, desperately searching for a treasured Vermeer.
The novel is so strong that its occasional moments of weakness seem an almost personal affront to the reader who has been bewitched by author Paul Watkins's quiet elegance. The narrative skims too quickly over David's life in Paris during the war years, and some of the most crucial facets of the generally well-balanced plot--Pankratov's diatribe to David on the German threat, for example, or David's decision to create that one last canvas--seem pale despite their avowed vigor. These moments feel as if Watkins has failed to prepare his own canvas properly, contenting himself with superficially dramatic strokes rather than carefully layering his foundation. But these flaws are minor detractions in an otherwise splendid work that balances canny portraiture with an unsentimentally evocative landscape. --Kelly Flynn
From Publishers Weekly
Occupied Paris is the backdrop for Watkins's eighth novel (after The Story of My Disappearance), a suspenseful historical tale of shifting allegiances and uneasy alliances. Shortly before WWII, David Halifax, a young American painter, receives a mysterious scholarship to study in Paris with the eccentric genius Alexander Pankratov. Halifax supplements his scholarship income by selling his sketches through a charming and unscrupulous art dealer, Guillaume Fleury. When war is declared, the three are enlisted by the French government in an elaborate scheme to prevent classic works of art from falling into German hands. With Pankratov's help, Halifax forges Old Masters that Fleury in turn trades for Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces the Germans consider "degenerate," while the originals are hidden away in the French countryside. Halifax and his cronies must guard against discovery by the Germans and reprisals from the Resistance, who believe they are collaborators. Meanwhile, the only female character, an enigmatic nude model, plays a thankless role, tossed between her Nazi providers and the unreliable Pankratov. Halifax's wartime adventures end brutally, but the true denouement is a somewhat anticlimactic exercise in closure, set many years later. Halifax is a compelling narrator, and Watkins uses the psychology of the forger as a vehicle of inquiry into the nature of art and the creative process. The poisonous effects of war, occupation and constant fear are mirrored in the decline of the city and those trying to protect it. While Watkins's themes are familiar, they are deftly handled, the writer's painterly eye for detail matching that of his protagonist. Talented but a little emotionless, Watkins continues to produce solid, reliable literary novels, deviating little from that norm in his latest effort. Relegated to the limbo of midlist novelist, he could do with some dedicated handselling to recommend him to readers in search of quality writing and strong narrative drive. (Nov.)
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