An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin’s latest novel about New York City’s art collecting scene begins in the early '90s, and rapidly moves to 2010: Christie’s, Sotheby’s, downtown parties, and uptown apartments. Martin’s protagonist, the ambitious and savvy Lacey Yeager, arrives in New York, originally from Atlanta, with a penchant for art history. But from the beginning, Martin establishes that Lacey is not to be confused with other precious, fresh-faced 23-year-olds. Lacey is as aware of her beauty as she is of a Cezanne, and often uses her understanding of both to her professional advantage. She accepts a position as Sotheby’s, selling art by commission, and ascends her social climb from there, meeting everyone worth knowing and eventually developing a taste for “objects of beauty.” Lacey parlays her commissions into her own budding art collection, purchasing a small Andy Warhol before the value skyrockets some years later.
Lacey’s tactful navigation of the cosmopolitan art scene is narrated by Daniel Franks, an art critic, peer, and longtime friend who is besotted with the heroine. His crush on Lacey, at times, dominates the text, as he swoons over her ability to work a room, appraise a painting’s worth -- all in a low-cut blouse. Lacey’s sexuality meets her determination in the moments when she sleeps with her business contacts, usually in swank hotels, foreign countries, and expensive offices.
Martin’s writing travels well over chatty lunches and the subtleties of the art market; he articulates the ebb and flow of art collecting trends with superior attention to nuance. However, his heroine never manages to escape the loud breathing and erotic fixation of the narrator. Daniel’s presence fades in and out of the story, but his voice, although observant, lingers over her body and her accomplishments as if they are one amatory entity. Lacey is, essentially, stalked through out her story rather than chronicled, constantly tailed by a narrative that fetishizes her zeal and her dexterity.
Such a narrative does an ultimate disservice to Lacey as a convincingly enterprising character, as her many achievements -- procuring an expensive painting, establishing her own gallery -- are reduced to proverbial dangling carrots for Daniel. Framing her intellectual and financial prowess within the limiting confines of a schoolboy crush diminishes the intended impact of her successes in the novel.
Martin accesses Lacey’s cunning nature by reaching back into her childhood, writing that “In children’s literature, the clever foxes were often the bad guys, but Lacey never thought so.” Throughout An Object of Beauty, Martin chooses to capture his female protagonist with brevity, telling readers that “When she was alone, she was potential; with others she was realized,” “her travel in Manhattan was vertical, not horizontal,” and “When she came into the room, there was an adjustment in the hierarchy of women.” Lacey’s power, beauty, and inherent social charm maintain Martin’s attentiveness regardless of shifts in the plot; she operates at the forefront of every scene, “like a wicked detail standing out against a placid background.”
But, many pages into Lacey’s life, career, and sexual history, Martin tells his readers that she has executed her flings with colleagues for “excitement” rather than “gain” -- something that he feels compelled to state rather than actually craft into his heroine.
The title of An Object of Beauty may perhaps speak to how Lacey functions in the text more so than her predilection for expensive aesthetics. Aligning the examination of art with a beautiful female protagonist could be the most literal application of the male gaze within literature but Martin goes to such lengths to assure his readers of Lacey’s other talents -- efforts that although come to fruition, are then smothered under Daniel’s infatuation.
Martin’s novel is not a haphazard attempt at fiction writing, but his fumbled approach to encapsulating a determined and sexually expressive female character from which to carry the story greatly compromises his otherwise eloquent and lucid prose.
Finishing An Object of Beauty immediately brings to mind the famous feminist John Berger quote from his book Ways of Seeing: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing