An Object of Beauty is Steve Martin's 2010 novel, the second full length novel he has published. When I read his first novel, Shopgirl, I was mostly curious as to whether he would be able to write a "serious" book without resting too heavily on the crutch of his celebrity. Having learned that this is indeed the case, I was mostly just curious as to what he would do in a full length novel. And "An Object of Beauty" didn't disappoint me, besides now I will have some trouble being able to picture Steve Martin with an arrow through his head.
The book is a history of New York City's art scene, from the middle of the 1990s until the present day. Or at least, that is the setting of the book, although how relevant that is to the book's theme is an open question. The protagonist of the book is a woman named Lacey Yeager, who works her way from auction house gopher to gallery owner and art dealer through a series of questionable business practices and personal manipulations. With the exception of one or two plot twists involving stolen art, fencing and the like, the book is fairly easy on plot, being more a chronicle and character study than a plot-driven venture.
Thematically, I think the book drives home a subtle and consistent point, in some ways summed up in the title. "An object of beauty" may be beautiful, with all the emotional depths that implies, but it still an object. In some ways, the books setting in the world of art is incidental, but not totally so: I think the theme of the book is that such things as relationships, ideas, intellectual life, and beauty itself can be transformed into commodities and mechanisms just as much as any other form of technology, and that when this is the case, the results can be just as bad, if not worse, than when any other technology is abused.
There are a few questions I have about this book, one of which if it might be slightly misogynist, as it paints the female protagonist as a manipulator who uses sex and emotional attachments to get her way. Due to some ups and downs in my personal life, I actually wouldn't object to misogyny much right now. But also, I think pointing out that certain patterns can exist is not the same as laying a blanket condemnation on an entire gender. And despite its implications, the portrait is, I think consistent and realistic.
The other comment I have about this book is the humor in a humorist writing such a serious book, while serious writers have written such humorous books. Steve Martin, of aforementioned arrow-through-the-head and dressing like a Pharoah and plucking the banjo has written a book that is a button down socially realistic literary novel, while what will probably be seen as the most serious, most important literary novel of the last thirty years has the Statue of Liberty wearing a diaper and mutated hamsters roaming across Maine. I almost wonder if Steve Martin might be overselling his commitment to being serious. Perhaps future works will show.