Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Review: "Still Lives" by Maria Hummel

The Rocque Museum was one of Los Angeles' hidden treasures—an art museum for art lovers and collectors more than for tourists. While this set the institution apart, this also took a toll on its finances. Everyone is desperate for a hit exhibition, including the founder's daughter, who is tired of bailing out the museum and the director, who is worried about job security.

They think they've found it in Still Lives, an exhibition by artist and provocateur Kim Lord. Lord painted self-portraits with her standing in for famous murder victims such as Nicole Brown Simpson, Kitty Genovese, Chandra Levy, and the Black Dahlia, in an effort to make a statement about how society and the media sensationalize violence against women. The pictures are chilling, eerie, and disturbing, and the elite of the art world are gathering at the Rocque to see the exhibition unveiled.

There's one issue though: Kim Lord doesn't show up for her own opening. Key museum staff receive texts that she'll be delayed a bit, but she never appears. And while her disappearance is helping boost the number of visitors, the longer she doesn't surface, the more concern grows, especially when some staff recount Lord's mentioning she felt she was being stalked in the museum.

Maggie Richter, a member of the museum's communications and PR office, wants to understand what happened to Kim, too, and it's not just because that would make her job easier. Maggie's ex-boyfriend, gallerist-on-the-rise Greg Shaw Ferguson, essentially dumped her for Kim, and it's not long before he stands accused of Kim's disappearance. Maggie wants to believe that the Greg she knew wouldn't be capable of anything nefarious, but she knows there are things he isn't telling her.

As Maggie searches for clues within Kim's own work, she begins to notice there is a lot more behind-the-scenes drama at the museum than she realized. Little by little, she starts to suspect others might have been responsible for Kim's disappearance, but she can't seem to make sense of their motivation. At the same time, she, too, becomes a suspect, given Kim's relationship with Shaw, but Maggie isn't sure what might happen—will she stand accused of a crime, or will she fall prey to the real perpetrator, who is determined to stop her progress?

"Find the who. Who gets hurt. Who gains. Whose life will never be the same."

This book is a fascinating look at the art world, the rise and fall of artists, the struggles of museums, and how collectors can change the flow of careers. At the same time, it's also a bit of a whodunit, one of those books in which an average, everyday person finds themselves immersed in trying to solve a crime despite having no real skills at doing so, and despite the fact they're putting themselves in danger.

The information that Maria Hummel provides gives a lot of insight into the former, and I like the way she describes the dynamics of the museum staff and the goings-on around the mounting of an exhibition. But as the book shifts full-time toward Maggie trying to figure out what happened to Kim and who was responsible, it loses its footing a bit. There is so much extraneous information thrown into the plot that I can't figure out what were supposed to be red herrings and what were just unresolved threads of the plot.

I like the way Hummel writes—this book has a breezy style, and the characters, while somewhat irritating, definitely got me invested in the story. While I enjoyed the book, I just wish the mystery part was executed a little cleaner, because it really had a lot of potential.

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