Review of The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber
The Forgery of Venus
by Michael Gruber
Although it contains a promising theme, The Forgery of Venus lacks a compelling story. Its characters are largely shallow and uninteresting; its plot is overly-complicated; the pacing suffers from an overabundance of exposition. While I'm sure Gruber had the best of intentions, his poor technical execution leaves much to be desired. Ultimately, I found The Forgery of Venus unsatisfactory.
For reasons that later become clear (unreliable narrator), Gruber chooses to wrap the story in a frame narrative told from the point of view of the protagonist's former college buddy. The scenario goes as follows: the protagonist, Chaz Wilmot, has recorded his narrative on a CD, which he then hands to the frame narrator at a party celebrating the sale of a 17th century painting that Wilmot may or may not have painted. For the first few chapters, Gruber dazzles us with exposition, in which our cardboard characters get shellacked with various traumas and emotional baggage--daddy issues, mommy issues, commitment issues, etc.--and the structure works! But then the story proper begins, and suddenly it doesn't sound like Chaz is dictating his story anymore. However, the "suspension of disbelief" sign has turned on, and I've fastened my seat belt, so apparently I'm going along for the ride.
And this is an important point: why is it necessary to justify a story told from the first-person perspective. If it isn't a frame narrative, it's a weak Call-Me-Ishmael chapter. In the specific case of The Forgery of Venus, I have the misfortune in that the only character I dislike more than Chaz Wilmot is the frame narrator. While Gruber can justify Chaz's painful expository chapters as consistent with the structure of the narrative, the frame narrator has no such crutch upon which to lean: the exposition in the introduction is anaemic and unnecessary. Just to set the record straight, most Canadians don't say "eh" at the end of their sentences; while I'm sure there are some who do, the very idea that you mentioned the stereotype offended me. The frame narrator's explanation of why Chaz is talking to him is weak at best: he suddenly switched his major from acting to pre-law because of a painting Chaz did while he was in costume? And somewhere along the way he picked up enough art history to appreciate the significance of Chaz's adventure from a scholarly perspective?
The unbelievable plot, in addition to the unbelievable, paper-thin characters, is what ruined this book for me. The themes that Gruber attempts to evince are worthy. The book improves toward the end, so I'm glad I persevered, and I understand Gruber's message about the mutability of our reality. Unfortunately, any redeeming aspects of The Forgery of Venus are crushed by its poor plotting and weak writing. It's, in some ways, an anti-The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown's research was weak, but as a writer he managed to create a compelling story. Conversely, Gruber's research and themes are strong, but the story lacks life and substance. The number of acceptable scenarios in which one can say, "Dad had a little problem" are few. I think that's the point where I gave up on the book's quality and resolved merely to finish it so I could give it a complete (notice I didn't say "fair") review.
I eked very little enjoyment from The Forgery of Venus. As romantic and attractive as the art forgery scene may seem, Gruber manages to quash that feeling in his drug-induced insanity plot. Had I any sympathy for the protagonist after the first few chapters (which I didn't), in which he whines about how unfortunate his life has been, it would have slowly bled out of me while I watched Chaz firmly refuse to take any responsibility for his own life. He's a passive protagonist.
The Forgery of Venus is a dead-on-arrival story burdened by its author's prose. I feel sorry for it, but not for its characters. I look forward to cleansing my reading palate with something more tasty next.