Steve Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty, should come with a disclaimer: “Beware. This book is not very funny.”
Although I’m a big admirer of comedians who branch out into other genres, I grabbed this book with the uninformed assumption it would leave me laughing. But like he did in his first novella, Shopgirl, Martin takes a more serious route with this new novel.
An Object of Beauty tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a smart and successful belle of New York who works her way up in the art world. Throughout the novel, Martin expresses an impressive knowledge of art history and the movements of the New York art scene through the 90s and 00s. Meanwhile, Lacey’s character dances the line between cliche and mysterious. At times, Martin paints Lacey as a modern day Scarlett O’Hara, with a classic allure, but other times, Lacey appears a bit stale in contrast to the modern world in which she lives.
There’s no doubt about it: Martin has a way with words, humorous or not. Martin describes pieces of artwork so vividly that the color art prints scattered throughout the pages are almost unnecessary (though very much appreciated). Martin knows his stuff, and the novel reflects a strong admiration for the art world contrasted with occasional subtle humorous jabs at its absurdities.
Martin’s novel has the potential to be a beautiful, smart and intriguing page-turner, but the plot is weak and plateaus for much of the story, spending too much time in description and information. Even when addressing major events such as 9/11, the tone of the plot remained lukewarm, leaving a “so what?” feeling toward the characters and happenings of the book.
While An Object of Beauty might still be worth a read for its strengths of imagery and language and as an interesting study of what happens when a comedian writes a dramatic story about art history with a female protagonist, don’t go in expecting a gut-splitting or page-turning experience.