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A Nearly Perfect Copy
By Allison Amend
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Allison Amend's A Nearly Perfect Copy is, as the jacket copy states, "an affecting novel of family and forgery set amid the rarified international art world." Ms. Amend is a Chicago native and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's workshop. A Nearly Perfect Copy is her third book, after a story collection and the 2010 novel Stations West.
If you're like me, when a book's description promises an affecting novel about family, and the author has an MFA from Iowa, you feel like you know what you're going to get before you've even cracked it open and read the first sentence. This is going to be a quiet novel. It's going to have pretty sentences, well-drawn characters, not a lot of plot. It might prove to be touching in the end, but it will likely be boring in places, too. It takes Ms. Amend exactly one chapter to defy those low expectations, and less than a hundred pages to lay them to waste completely.
Elmira Howells, Elm for short, is the head of the drawings and etchings department at her family's Manhattan auction house. Gabriel Connois, a Spaniard living in Paris and a descendant of the great painter who shares his surname, is still slaving as a gallery assistant fifteen years after completing his studies at the prestigious Ecole Academy. The action of the novel shifts back and forth between New York and Paris. Other characters include Elm's gay best friend Ian, an ambitious auction house employee named Collette who becomes Gabriel's love interest and for a time seems to be the only link between the two storylines, a mysterious art dealer named Augustus Klinmann, and a host of other vivid characters.
In that first chapter, Elm and her husband Colin head to a dinner party. By now we've learned that they lost their son Ronan in tragic circumstances, and the loss is affecting Elm's work as well as their marriage. The party takes place in the apartment of a rich couple with an amazing collection of modern art hung on their walls, as well as a strangely out-of-place portrait of a dog. The party's host catches Elm looking at the pet art, and it comes out that the couple is planning to clone and reincarnate their beloved and recently deceased dog Dishoo. "Crazy as fucking loons, the rich are," says Colin on the car ride home.
And yet the seed has been planted. The cloned dog, the possibility of pet cloning, isn't something we expect to find in the quiet, technically proficient yet somehow lifeless work of Iowa graduates. And of course the detail brings up an interesting possibility. If it's possible to clone a dead dog, then why not a dead son? The possibility that Ms. Amend's story would end in a plot twist where we meet Dishoo and Elm sets off on some crazy quest to reincarnate Ronan was enough to keep me reading.
After it was revealed in the second cycle of chapters that Ronan died in the Tsunami (yup, "the" Tsunami, capital "T"), I was tempted for a moment to toss the book across the room. Too fantastic, I thought, too over-the-top, too improbable, nearly a cliche. But if you're going to kill a character off, why not do it big? And really, isn't divulging the details of the tragedy early on a gutsy choice, especially when withholding those details can be so easily used to maintain suspense? And wouldn't you rather read about a Tsunami than another car accident or a rare blood disorder or some form of cancer? That's a good question for readers to ask themselves before picking this one up. If you answer Tsunami, then Ms. Amend has written the book for you. If you'd prefer cancer, then you'll have to look elsewhere.
Style points aside (Ms. Amend gets them from me), the Tsunami scenes gripped and moved me. Even more, they surprised me. I hadn't expected to encounter such blunt, brutal writing in this book. By the end of that chapter, I had surrendered to the book completely. When Elm set off on her crazy cloning mission only a few pages later, and a good two-hundred pages earlier than I thought she might, I was willing to follow Ms. Amend anywhere.
I've focused here on Elm's half of the story, but the sections involving Gabriel are also quite entertaining, if a bit less surprising. As someone who's struggled to "make art," who went to an art school of a sort, who's watched friend's artistic successes with, how shall we put it, a smidge of natural jealousy, I found much of Gabriel's obsessing to be quite funny and also to ring true, although the constant onslaught of interiority and the complete inability to take any joy at all from life after a few professional disappointments got a little grating at times.
I loved the many of the secondary characters here, loved the neat trick Ms. Amend pulled off of showing us how Klinmann or Colette might appear very differently when either Gabriel or Elm was seeing them. I thought the two storylines combined nicely at the end.
As an aside, this is the second book I've read this month featuring a secondary named Didier. The other is Rachel Kushner's The Flamethowers. In both books the Didiers are struggling artists. That's not where the similarities between the two books end, either. Both are set in the art world, both shift between exciting locales, both have an ambitious and somewhat baffled emerging artist at their center. A Nearly Perfect Copy may be somewhat lighter fare than than The Flamethrowers, but Ms. Amend's book will always be the type I prefer.
A Nearly Perfect Copy is everything a reader could ask for in a great summer read. Tons of plot, characters that keep you guessing, international intrigue, an introduction to a fascinating and unknown world where untold millions change hands on a continual basis, an appealingly direct style, and, oh yes, cloning.
Out of 10: 9