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[315] Theft: A Love Story – Peter Carey

” Yes: she had a dodgy painting, or one with a murky past. Yes: she invented a history with a bullshit catalogue. Yes: it’s even worse than this. Well: my complete abject fucking apologies to all the cardinals concerned, but the rich collectors could look after themselves. . . . Marlene Leibovitz had manufactured a catalogue, a title too as you’ll soon learn. She had turned a worthless orphan canvas into something that anyone would pay a million bucks for. ” [Ch. 34]

Theft is a (farcical) drama. It’s a send-up of the art world, redolent with satire about dealers, auction houses, collectors, art writers and forgers. The book is an art heist wrapped around some kind of a fraternal saga, in which Butcher Boone, a formerly successful Australian painter who has been divorced and bankrupted by his ex-wife, is saddled with his beloved but “damaged” brother Hugh. Recently released from jail after trying to steal back his own paintings, which were declared “marital assets” during the divorce. Boone is reduced to care-taking a remote estate for his largest collector.

There is nothing sure or contain it would seem no matter how you shave your skull or boast about your position in AUSTRALIAN ART. One minute you are a NATIONAL TREASURE with a house in Ryde and then you are a has-been buying Dulux with your brother’s DISABILITY PENSION. [Ch. 3]

When Butcher rescues a chic young woman from her submerged car during a flood, the chance meeting embroils the brothers in an international crime investigation that eventually comprises of forgery, vast sums of money, and a murder. Marlene Leibovitz, who has the power to authenticate the works of a 20th-century master (her mate father-in-law who has been inveigled by his wife), has arrived to document a painting that belongs to Butcher’s next door neighbor. The whole scheme to defraud is thus narrated in alternating by the brothers. Ironically, often taken as a simpleton, Hugh’s commentary is often more astute and realistic than that of Butcher, who can be clueless about the Leibovitz art fraud. Maybe he is too smitten with Marlene?

But why would I not turn away from her, now, as we passed this scratched-up metal door from under which wafted the inexplicable odours of cumin and cinnamon? I did not wish to turn away. So I really believed that a self-confessed liar and cheat really loved my paintings. [Ch. 45]

Overall, despite Carey’s mastery of language, to the extent that the novel is intended to portray and dissect human relationships, it fails. The intention as a black comic sendup also doesn’t pull through. The isolated humor does make me beam, but the book is a slog from start to finish.

272 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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13 Responses

  1. Don’t feel bad….. I started this one when it was first released and could never get into it.

    • Peter Carey is new author to me. I wanted to begin with a book for which he didn’t win a literary prize, since he’s a two-time Booker winner. I just don’t resonate with the story. Or…is there a story?

  2. I think I’ll skip this one and read one of Carey’s other books instead. It’s funny because as I read through your review I kept thinking to myself that this didn’t sound like a book you would read or enjoy and then I got to “toss” and I knew I was right!

    • My friend just said she thought Oscar and Lucinda is a slog as well. The outlook is grim for me to read more Carey. Kathleen, you do have some great insight to my reading taste!

  3. Yikes! It’s so rare for you to give a book a “toss” rating, that this review definitely piqued my interest. I’ve heard such good things about Carey, and the premise of this book was interesting, but the fact that you wouldn’t even recommend borrowing it speaks volumes!

    • I usually have a fairly good radar for what I would enjoy in a book. Every once in a while the radar fails, and with Theft, the radar just completely bugled! Consider how much I like the opening quote I cited, I am disappointed at just how much of a slog the book is.

  4. Your review has convinced me not to read this one, because I am pretty sure Carey is not for me. I slogged through Oscar and Lucinda, so I know how you feel!

  5. That’s a bummer, because that first quote you gave us was something. So much potential!! I through with slogging.

  6. […] book that disappointed you: Theft Peter Carey (disappointing for a two-time Booker Prize […]

  7. “Slog” is definitely the word for Carey’s books. But I read this one over Xmas hols and found it pretty easy going — could have been a Nick Hornby novel.

  8. […] to the Independent Literary Award. What was the last book you disliked and couldn’t finish? Theft by Peter Carey. What was the last book you read and loved? A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. What […]

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