It’s usually very hard for me to like a book if I can’t like the protagonist. But I must be broadening my horizons this year. I thoroughly enjoyed “Steve Jobs” (he was undeniably brilliant but just so hard to like sometimes) and now I’ve found another book with a fairly loathsome main character that I still managed to really enjoy.
Steve Martin can write. His prose is clear and evocative, and I was easily able to imagine the New York art world in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. “An Object of Beauty” is a story about a woman named Lacey Yeager and is told by an art writer who claims “I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down…I will be unable to ever write about anything else” (p. 3). Yeager, an art history graduate, begins working at Sotheby’s, researching paintings and learning to assess their worth. She quickly starts to see these objects of beauty as objects of value, which is when she engages in some unethical and possibly illegal activities. Yeager seems to be morally bankrupt, which makes it possible for her to also see people as objects of value – she is constantly manipulating situations and people to her advantage. She uses men and then throws them away, and her beauty, vivacity, charm, and wit keep them interested long after they should be. She becomes quite successful, part of that due to luck and some of that due to her foresight and sheer will. She seems to live a charmed life – paintings she bought for a song fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars just a few years later. Yeager opens her own gallery, which does quite well. Then the crash of 2008 hits, and she hits rock bottom.
This book made me wonder if everything has a price. In his novel, Martin talks about how even true collectors are willing to part with a piece if the price is right. But I think we see Yeager as an example of how terrible and destructive this thinking can be. Lacey makes herself an object of beauty, and is often willing to sell herself (and not even to the highest bidder). I also began thinking about the nature of beauty. Humans are naturally attracted to beauty and driven to possess that beauty. Which explains why so many men fell for Yeager. But in the end, that kind of desire is never satiated, especially when the beauty doesn’t come with any substance. We see this behavior in Yeager herself, who never seems to be satisfied. She is always lusting after more money, better paintings, and other men. Which makes for one unhappy life.