Wendy Lee’s latest novel, The Art of Confidence, takes readers through the tale of a single forgery, its making and unmaking. Liu Qingwu is a poor artist hawking goods outside the Met in New York City, when he’s approached by a Chelsea dealer to recreate a work. Little does he know her motivations (to save her aunt’s gallery) or her intended price ($2 million). All he knows is that it is a job, and he long ago failed to become as successful as some of his friends.
As the tale unwinds, Lee takes us through the stories of all the different players, shifting narrative voices between chapters. In one, we hear from Liu. In another, from Caroline Lowry, the gallery owner. Later, from Molly, Caroline’s college best friend’s daughter and now gallery assistant, and from Harold, a Taiwanese businessman intent on buying an expensive piece of art.
From chapter to chapter, the narrative flows forward rather than revisiting scenes from different perspectives. While none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, each wrestles with a different sense of what it means to have purpose. Much of the novel focuses on explaining each’s actions and decisions throughout the creation of its forgery and the revelations around it. At times, this slows the pace of the largely plot-driven work. At others, it takes the reader down odd yet interesting tangents.
At its center, with the construct of her web of characters, Lee explores the art market, in particular pointing out the rampant spread of forgeries within the Asian art buying market and the desire of new wealth to purchase pricey pieces. In the very end, Lee flips the perspective, and without spoiling it, poses a question as to what meaning and value art, real or not, can offer. With only a few small surprises, The Art of Confidence neatly unfolds, exposing a unique cast of characters each in their own way searching for redemption.