Book Review: Object of Beauty

By Kerri Jackson

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Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Orion $39.99

How much you'll enjoy this novel from American actor and comedian Steve Martin will depend on how engaged you are with recent art history.

The book trails the career path of the highly ambitious Lacey Yeager, from the 90s to the financial bust of the late Noughties, a period in which the modern art market, particularly in New York, went through a phenomenal boom. Narrated by Yeager's college buddy Daniel Franks, the story follows her from college to her first job in the basement of Sothebys and her climb out of it, guided by a moral compass which moves only to direct her to the most efficient route upward, no matter who it mows down.

The cover blurb suggests much of Yeager's success is pinned on a hidden secret which threatens to "detonate everything she has worked for". Which is true, if exaggerated. That secret is the thinnest of threads, there to provide some note of dramatic tension in what is really Martin, himself a keen art collector, documenting the real-life boom of the art market.

The reveal, when it comes, is a little underwhelming and although Yeager's crime certainly marks her as ruthless, given the world in which she works, you also can't help admire her ability to succeed in it.

It's the age-old story of a survivor - a girl from an ordinary background with the charisma, looks and brains to be extraordinary and who is prepared to wield them mercilessly as required.

What makes the book stand out is Martin's intricate, first-hand knowledge of the mechanics and personalities of the New York art world. The book is peppered with illustrations of the works which is a help in engaging with the story, particularly if you're not an avid art follower yourself.

The problem is that for all of Martin's knowledge and sharp observation skills, the picture he is painting still seems to be missing a colour or two from its palette.

It's a little clinical - diverting but distancing - with characters who are hard to like or care about. As a slice of social history, it's interesting enough, though without much insight for the novice. Those with a deeper knowledge of the art community will perhaps glean more from it, though it's hard to see where it offers them something they don't already know.

Remember Martin's most recent film, the horrible It's Complicated, in which he inexplicably played the straight man to Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin's smug mugging for the camera? You watched, hopeful of some flicker of wry wit from Martin's character that would save the day and the film, only for it to never eventuate.

This is a little like that - there's plenty here that's good enough, you just feel that if Martin had shrugged off the art lecture and let himself go a little, this could have been so much better.

- NZ Herald

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