Picks and Pans Review: Masterpiece

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Thomas Hoving

You might expect the editor of a magazine called Connoisseur to appreciate that any genre, even best-seller books, has its standards and to be a bit more squeamish than your run-of-the-mill hack about violating same. But if Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, appreciates many of the finer things of life, prose style and narrative elegance are not among them. This sodden thriller is about the jockeying of the world's leading museums and collectors to obtain an extraordinary painting by Velasquez. Consider the following scene: "Back in her suite at the Place Vendôme, Olivia spoke out loud: 'I'm not going to lose, I swear. Either the painting or the Metropolitan. So no more Plain Jane disguise. No more librarian!...I'm not going to look like a schoolmarm for another minute!' Olivia stalked into her spacious bathroom and began to wash the dulling rinse from her hair, revealing a natural golden blond." After a few more exclamations along the lines of "no more horn-rim glasses!"—just in case we haven't gotten the point—the once-mousy female protagonist emerges from this absurd epiphany a stunning, chic, witty, aggressive creature. Her professional rival and love interest is already all of those, of course, plus fabulously wealthy. Together they wade into the confusing, implausible and strangely amoral plot, in which war crimes have roughly the same weight as spats between rival curators. At one point Olivia's friend Andrew Foster deploys information that would topple one or two Middle Eastern governments and jail a dozen CEOs to give his girlfriend a career advantage. Such florid plot turns (Hoving has a particular weakness for portraying the CIA and the KGB as compulsive meddlers) induce more vertigo than suspense. In fact the only real source of entertainment is imagining all Hoving's art patron pals wondering whether Hoving—so refined and clever when they met at the charity ball—really wrote Masterpiece the likes of them. He himself seems far from sure of his audience. How else explain a sentence like this: "As she looked at him in growing confusion, the thought that he might be dissimulating—lying—seared her mind." As we read that, what seared our mind was the thought that Hoving has written a truly meretricious—vulgar—book. (Simon and Schuster, $17.95)

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