Allison Amend’s debut novel, “Stations West,” was a fascinating historical portrait of Jews trying to survive in the American Southwest. Her second novel binds together a metaphorical story of human genetic engineering and art forgery. Though the book might sound like science fiction or pulp mystery, Amend’s “A Nearly Perfect Copy” is a realistic and very human tale, filled with guilt, ethical dilemma and desperation.
Set mostly in 2007 in Paris and New York, “Perfect Copy,” is a five-parter with two major characters: Elm Howells and Gabriel Connois. Elm authenticates 17th- to 19th-century art at an auction house in New York while Gabriel is a struggling painter living in Paris. He’s taken the surname of a distant relative, a major Spanish painter. Both Elm and Gabriel are in their early 40s and dissatisfied with their careers and lives. Elm often works with Colette, a busybody and flirt from the auction house’s Paris office; she becomes the international linchpin between Elm and Gabriel.
Gabriel is a graduate of a prestigious French school, but he has never emerged as a successful artist. He’s taken a menial job at Rosenzweig Galleries “eking out an existence as gallery slave and desperately searching for the time and money to work on his art,” but he draws fantastic imitations. Gabriel is single and dates women such as Colette, whose tastes are too expensive for his wallet.
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Elm’s husband, Colin, is in danger of losing his job as an executive in a pharmaceutical company. Their son, Ronan, died two years before, at age 8. Elm is still distraught: a “nameless feeling that wasn’t as acute as grief or as chronic as depression.” That feeling causes Elm to further alienate her husband; moreover, she longs for another child and, even more, to have her son back.
At a party, Elm meets a couple who’ve hired a genetic engineering firm to clone their dead dog. The company, in France, also does human genetic engineering, albeit illegally. But Elm is so desperate that she determines to hire the company to clone Ronan using DNA samples from the hair in Ronan’s old comb.
Meanwhile in Paris, Colette introduces Gabriel to a man who hires him to re-create impressionist art, saying the paintings will adorn new hotel rooms. Gabriel paints several forgeries at 10,000 euros a pop, solving his money problems.
Back in New York, with Colette’s help, Elm develops her own scheme to raise money by authenticating Gabriel’s paintings.
Amend tells an absorbing story of believable characters walking a tightrope of ethical dilemma and despair. She engineers a story that could have been simplistic nonsense into something artistic and beautiful.
‘A Nearly Perfect Copy’
A novel by Allison Amend
Published by Nan A. Talese, 304 pages, $25.95