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Fiction writers are inspired by how museums collect, preserve, and honor life in tangible ways, generating both contemplative and provocative atmospheres as the past and present collide. Art museums power Indelicacy and Metropolitan Stories, the debut novels of Amina Cain and Christine Coulson, respectively, while the novels and novellas below present museums public and under siege as well as deeply personal and haunting archives.
The Art Forger. By B. A. Shapiro. 2012. Algonquin, $15.95 (9781616203160).
The catalyst for Shapiro’s suspenseful debut about a superb but frustrated painter lured into the dark world of forgery is the legendary 1990 art heist in which 13 masterpieces were stolen from Boston’s Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Artist of Disappearance. By Anita Desai.2011. Mariner, $13.95 (9780547840123).
Desai reflects on the transforming power and devastating limitations of art in three disquieting novellas, including “The Museum of Final Journeys,” in which a magistrate in a remote, impoverished district in India visits a dilapidated mansion filled with exquisite, exiled, and forgotten objects from around the world.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. By Chris F. Westbury. 2014. Counterpoint, $15.95 (9781619025493).
Neuropsychologist Westbury’s funny and insightful debut centers on Isaac, whose obsessive-compulsive disorder underlies his habit of spending months in museums contemplating single objects; he then joins a group-therapy friend on a journey to see Marcel Duchamp’s titular masterpiece.
The Goldfinch. By Donna Tartt. 2013. Little, Brown, $10.99 (9780316055420).
Tartt’s engrossing and trenchant Carnegie Medal-winning novel begins with a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art that catapults young Theo into art’s perplexing and dangerous underworld.
The Great Believers. By Rebecca Makkai. 2018. Penguin, $16 (9780735223530)
Yale Tishman works in the art museum at Northwestern University, and through the sister of a friend who has died from AIDS he has a shot at acquiring a major private collection. Makkai’s best-seller is a Carnegie Medal winner.
Little. By Edward Carey. 2018. Riverhead, $27 (9780525534327).
Carey’s creative, witty, biographically inspired novel follows poor orphan Marie Grosholtz as she becomes proficient in wax works in revolutionary Paris, flees to England, and, as Madame Tussaud, opens her still-famous London museum.
Magnificence. By Lydia Millet. 2012. Norton, $15.95 (9780393346855).
In Millet’s strange, entrancing, and ecologically attuned novel, a woman unexpectedly inherits a private natural history museum in Pasadena.
Middle C. By William H. Gass. 2013. Vintage, $16.95 (9780804168786).
Although a music professor has secretly filled the attic of the Victorian Ohio home he shares with his Austrian refugee mother with his “Inhumanity Museum,” documenting genocidal horrors, ultimately Gass’ exuberantly learned novel is comedic and life-affirming.
The Museum of Modern Love. By Heather Rose. 2018. Algonquin $15.95 (9781616208523).
Inspired by performance artist Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present—a now-legendary 2010 work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Rose’s emotionally rich novel portrays Abramović and people drawn to and changed by their time sitting in silence with her at the museum.
The Museum of Innocence. By Orhan Pamuk. 2009. Vintage, $17 (9780307386243).
Nobel laureate Pamuk portrays an Istanbul businessman engaged to a woman in his social class, but obsessively in love with a very different younger woman. In despair, he collects all manner of artifacts associated with his lost love in a haunting “museum of innocence.”
The Tsar of Love and Techno. By Anthony Marra.2015. Hogarth, $16 (9780770436452).
Marra’s interconnected stories about the grim ironies of twentieth-century Russia are shaped by the absence of a museum destroyed in war, the efforts to protect what’s left of its art by the former director, and a censor tasked with removing “dissidents” from paintings and photographs.
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