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The Forgery of Venus    by Michael Gruber order for
Forgery of Venus
by Michael Gruber
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William Morrow, 2008 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Michael Gruber is a highly talented writer whose work ranges from YA fantasy (The Witch's Boy) to thrillers that send tendrils back into history (The Book of Air and Shadows) or incorporate magical elements (Night of the Jaguar). His latest work, The Forgery of Venus, is immersed in the world of art (both modern and historical), along with a strong element of psychological suspense.

The build-up is slow, as readers get to know narrator Chaz Wilmot, a talented artist who has never lived up to his promise and who struggles to earn enough income to pay his son's medical bills - young Milo has familial pulmonary dystrophy. Chaz applies his skills in the techniques of old masters like Goya and Gainsborough - he tells a friend, 'I can paint like anybody except me' - to small ad and magazine commissions. But is Chaz sane? After all, early in the book, we see him claim to an old college friend to have painted (in 1650, in Rome!) a newly discovered masterpiece by seventeenth century Spanish artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez - that painting is being auctioned for hundreds of millions. That question about the artist's sanity pulls the reader through a puzzling story that moves steadily back and forth in time.

A piece of the puzzle falls into place when we see Chaz participate in a study of a drug to enhance creativity - under the auspices of another old college friend. After he begins taking salvinorin - and even after he stops - Chaz experiences incredibly real episodes in which he lives Velázquez's life in Spain and later in Italy, and enters the most productive artistic period in his life, painting with frenzy. Soon afterwards, he's approached to paint a fresco in the style of famed eighteenth-century painter Tiepolo for a shady Italian businessman. He needs the money for Milo and takes the commission. It's a huge success that brings the artist to the notice of another shady character, Werner Krebs, an extremely wealthy art dealer, whose family had close ties to the Nazis. Krebs becomes Chaz's manipulator and patron, and - in a very strange way - his friend.

In The Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber gives us a brilliantly written novel that sets an artist's reliving of a past life against a backdrop of forgery, unscrupulous collectors, drugs, violence, and Macchiavellian manipulation - to create confusion in the reader's mind about what's really happening. By the end of the novel, readers are left wondering whether they have shared an insane artist's delusions, or have just read about the most successful scam of all time. The Forgery of Venus is highly recommended, especially for anyone interested in art history.

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