Sunday Books: The Art Thief, Tom Lake + a Book Signing

The Art Thief

by Michael Finkel

Published by Knopf, Hardback – $28, 240 pages (Published June 27, 2023)
Hardback edition
Kindle version available

Reviewed by Penny A Parrish

Most people who steal art do so for money.  Usually they find out that fencing a famous piece is difficult, so works often disappear into the black market never to be seen again.  Other thieves try to get ransom money and are caught.

Stephane Breitwieser takes a different approach.  This Frenchman considers himself an “art collector” or “art liberator.”  In other words, he steals his pieces.  Over the course of eight years, he and his accomplice walked out of museums and galleries in Europe with more than three hundred works of art which he kept in his two attic rooms so he could wake up each morning surrounded by beauty.

Michael Finkel was able to interview Breitwieser, who is in prison, about his escapades.  They began after his parents divorced, when his father not only left their home but took all of his art collection with him.  Stephane’s goal was to accumulate a collection far better than any his father had.  And he succeeded.

The art thieves have a pattern.  He is accompanied by his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, who serves as his lookout.  They dress in Hugo Boss and Chanel which they buy from resale stores because he can’t hold a job and she works as a nursing aide at a hospital.  He carries a Swiss army knife which he uses to loosen screws or cut paintings out of frames.  They put their loot in his backpack or her large fashionable purse and walk out the door.  They steal silver, oils, statues, weapons – anything that catches his eye.  Like an addict he becomes more and more careless, until he is eventually caught.

Readers will be fascinated – and appalled – when they find out what happened to many of the stolen items.  For example, a tapestry (yes, they were able to steal something that large) ends up in a roadside ditch.  When discovered by a passerby, it is taken to the police, who think it’s an old rug and put it on the floor of their precinct.  Another man finds a few paintings on copper which he uses to repair the roof of his henhouse.

Finkel did his research, and puts together an intriguing trail of theft, love, narcissism, family dynamics and risk.   Since the thieves stole from several countries, it was difficult for law enforcement to connect their activities.  Finkel pulls them all together in this fascinating true crime book.

Tom Lake

by Ann Patchett

Published by Harper, Hardback – $24, 320 pages (Published August 1, 2023)
Hardback edition
Kindle version available

Reviewed by Ashley Riggleson

Ann Patchett’s novels have always been hit or miss for me, so I was hesitant when I saw that her latest, Tom Lake, was available for review. I requested it because I had a gut feeling I would love this title, and I did. This quiet and melancholy novel, which is set, in part, during the beginning of the pandemic, is bittersweet and poignant. Tom Lake is my favorite Patchett novel to date.

As the novel opens, readers are introduced to a family of cherry farmers who are struggling to harvest their crop without the usual number of pickers. It is early in the pandemic, and Lara’s grown daughters have all returned home. Their lives are repetitive and mundane, but the past is not. And as the family spends day after day picking cherries, Lara’s daughters, Emily, Maise, and Nell, convince their mother to tell the story of her past relationship with an up-and-coming young actor named Peter Duke who, when the story opens, is a true celebrity.

Although the pandemic plays a key role in this plot, most of the novel is set in the past, and we first meet Lara as a high school student who lands a role in a community production of “Our Town.” She is a natural Emily, but she is not initially aware that this play has changed her life. After the production is done, Lara continues working as a seamstress and goes to college. But when her college also puts on a production of “Our Town,” Lara once again plays Emily and is “discovered” by a man working in the film industry. Though her career in Los Angeles is not notably successful, Lara once again stars in a production of “Our Town,” this one at Tom Lake, a theater company in Michigan. It is here that she meets Duke, who is also in the play. He is an ambitious young actor with dreams of stardom. As their paths collide during one golden summer, a wild romance blooms, but, as readers know from the beginning, does not work in the end.

A novel like this relies heavily on the author’s ability to create complex characters, and while not every person who features in this novel feels as well-crafted, Patchett has created, in Lara, a woman with an incredibly rich inner world that propels the novel forward. She is an ordinary woman in extraordinary times, and the pandemic, though largely unmentioned, plays a key role in making this novel possible.

Oddly, though, there is little mention of the disease or its impact. And while that may seem unbelievable, I think it works. Patchett perfectly captures the trauma of those early days, in which distancing yourself from the world outside was a matter of survival. This gentle, compassionate, and elegiac novel also shows how storytelling can help us cope with even the harshest circumstances.

I wondered if Tom Lake would be anything like Elizabeth Strout’s most recent novel, Lucy by the Sea, which I also enjoyed. The two works are, thematically speaking, quite similar, and the tone they strike is comparable as well. Both novels seem to mourn a pre-pandemic world, but both novels are not without joy. One key difference, however, is that while Strout’s novel is very minimalist, Patchett is not afraid to take her time. And Tom Lake is a densely packed book with measured pacing.

Tom Lake also explores themes of fame and ambition, topics that differentiate this novel from Strout’s earlier work. And, as Lara tells the story of her time with Duke over that golden summer, she also explains why her life went in a different direction. This book is, ultimately, a love story in which the ordinary shines with beauty and fame is destructive.

This touching novel, which explores love in all its iterations, is a wonderful contribution to literature about the pandemic, and I loved reading it. Patchett shows that horror and beauty are, in a post-pandemic world, two sides of the same coin, and the family in Tom Lake, with all its tenderness and foibles, is sure to leave an indelible mark on readers’ hearts.

Book Signing

Jim Hall – Saturday, Aug. 19, beginning at 1 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Central Park in Fredericksburg

Jim Hall, a Virginia native now living in Fredericksburg, will sign copies of his new book The Lynching of Arthur Jordan on Saturday August 19. From the book jacket:

Arthur Jordan and Elvira Corder were young and unafraid, but their love was doomed. He was Black, she was white and this was Virginia in 1880. When Elvira became pregnant, the couple fled Fauquier County to live in Maryland. But her father found them and recruited neighbors to help kidnap them. Four nights later, a mob dragged Arthur from the county jail in Warrenton and lynched him. Elvira, taken to a hotel in Williamsport, Maryland, was never heard from again. Stories of lynching are all too common in the postbellum South, but this one tells a unique tale of a couple who were willing to sacrifice everything to be together—and did. Author Jim Hall tells a classic tale of forbidden love, one of hope crushed by hate.

Hall previously published The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain in 2016, also with The History Press. He holds a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Mary Washington. A native of Virginia, he is retired and lives in Fredericksburg.