I was sure that I had read someone, in reviewing Steve Martin's art-world novel, An Object of Beauty, compare it unfavorably to Samantha Peale's art-world novel from the previous year, The American Painter Emma Dial, but the web scrapers are unable to confirm that for me. But if you've read one of the novels, it's hard not to think of it when you read the other: both are set in today's money-saturated art world, and both were written by insiders (Martin's an active and well-connected collector, and Peale worked for Jeff Koons for several years). They both have some of the trappings of satire but reveal quite a bit of affection for that world as well, and they are both about ambitious and desirable young women trying to make their way through a male-dominated art business (and in each book the woman's ownership of a valuable painting with a personal connection plays a central role in the plot).
I came to them backwards: I set Emma Dial aside with interest in 2009 (and also gave it to my sister, who is experienced, like Emma, in both art and assisting), but I didn't get to it until this spring, while I read An Object of Beauty last fall (so I could interview Mr. Martin). And I enjoyed An Object of Beauty, within the genre limits it set pretty sturdily for itself. But Emma Dial, though it follows a few genre codes of its own, knocked about for me within that space in a more interesting and more surprising way.
On the broader scale, the basic drama of it--a talented young artist who has worked for years as the assistant to a world-famous painter, doing all of the actual painting of his works under his command--is catnip to me: as I've already mentioned in the short life of this blog, I love questions about artistic originality. And Peale works out those questions with real subtlety and insight. Emma's work for Michael, her artist/employer (and sometimes lover), isn't treated as a fraud or a scandal: their work is a collaboration, and while she does all the painting, his contribution, in directing her work, is authentic as well. But the power dynamics involved are still faintly corrupt, and certainly they stifle Emma's own artistic development. The portraits of Emma's fellow assistants, each with a differently complicated relationship of collaborator/therapist/secretary/lover with their artist, further enrich what is, at its heart, an entry in the often-maligned "assistant lit" literary genre. Peale is not judgmental about any of these imbalanced but not inhuman relationships, but that doesn't mean she isn't willing to judge.
But assistant lit does have its conventions, and the strongest one, which haunted this novel as I read it, both in my expectation and my lizard desire for it to be fulfilled, is that the assistant will grow to independence (generally requiring a violent break with the one she has assisted). You do want Emma to return to her own painting, and [SPOILER] Peale gets her there in a fairly authentic way (although I wasn't convinced by the climactic break scene). It's a convention you can spot a hundred pages away, though, which takes away some of the interest of it. (Meanwhile, she handles Emma's parallel erotic independence particularly well, if by "well" you mean "with intriguing ambiguity," since it's earned via yet another mentor figure, a rival of Michael's, in a relationship that both does and doesn't echo the one she just left.)
Closer to the ground than that big-picture thematic and character-arc stuff, though, I was equally impressed with some of the crafty fiction things she does very well. As I mentioned above with Emma's other assistants, Peale is excellent with secondary characters, giving them memorable identities that are generally as complex as a cameo allows. And a real crafty thing: her expert pacing in a few scenes, balancing (and grounding) the main drive of the scene with convincing side business. I think in particular of a long and intense dinner party among friends, in which the climax (in which one of the friends abruptly breaks with his lover and the entire group) is followed by awkward silence and then, in the apartment building hallway, the skittering and sniffing of a neighbor's Dobermans, which the spurned lover goes out feed, providing an ideal and indirect landing place for the high emotions that have just been unleashed.
Those sorts of subtle skills would never get Emma Dial celebrated for fictional innovation, but they are as difficult to pull off as more overt experiments, and at least as satisfying.
P.S. Inevitable cover digression. I've put two jackets next to each other above. (I thought the one on the left was the hardcover, since it's the one on my galley, but Amazon shows the one on the right for both the hardcover and paperback, and the one on the left only for the Kindle edition. Which is the real hardcover? I can't remember...) Which do you prefer? I don't dislike the paperback, but I have a real affection for the hardcover galley, despite its use of one of the most annoying of modern book-design cliches: an anonymous part of a woman's body (at least it's not the back of her head). There is something about the juxtaposition of the paint-spattered work clothing and the nearly-bare arm (and the hand holding something that you can't quite make out) that evokes the tension between work and self that's at the heart of the book. Or maybe I just find that combo crazy attractive.