A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend is a tale of minutiae missing and achieved. Its writing feels much like the travails of its protagonists-- an admirable overall goal with flawed execution.
Elm Howells is an American art expert for her family’s auction house, Tinsley’s. Gabriel Connois is a Spanish-turned Parisian forty-some starving artist. Their paths collide in a dueling narrative brought together by one Colette, a Frenchwoman out for Elm’s job. You see, greed ends up as everyone’s undoing in A Nearly Perfect Copy. And often, greed starts from a genuine, understandable place. Elm still struggles with loss of a son in the 2004 Pacific tsunami while the family vacationed in Thailand. Gabriel wants to be the artist all his art school friends and professors thought he was going to be. And so one draws art forgeries while another buys them against her intuition to finance the secret cloning of her lost son. It’s really hard to support such avaricious characters, especially when Elm is a upper-class New York career woman who doesn’t seem to pay much attention to her remaining child. The latter fatally limits the impact of Elm’s character. Gabriel’s artistic desire at least rings genuine, and hopefully not just to a reader with an art school background.
Oddly, in the midst of reading this book I ended up writing a defense of unlikable characters. And it’s not that the likeability I take issue with here, though I can safely say I like neither main character. It's that neither Gabriel or Elm seem multifaceted. Their greed is their overwhelming note, which, while it propels them nicely, makes them off-putting as full creations. Amend’s minor characters, such as Elm’s husband and her assistant Ian, and the crooked art dealer selling Gabriel’s fakes, are more compelling than either main one, which is a weird imbalance when twin main character plots are what give the book its heft. Unfortunately, these more intriguing characters got glossed over as time went on, and overall, the book suffers from prose just a shade above workmanlike, an emphasis on telling rather than showing, and in parts, some fairly cliché dialogue. Not everyone can be a stylist, but for the complexity of topics and emotion put forth, the prose was just not up to the task.
Now all of that sounds unappetizing, so let me tell you what I did enjoy. First of all, Amend’s obvious research into art and art forgery felt like a fascinating museum tour. Her attention to the making of ink and varieties of paper coupled with her meditations on the eye of an appraiser and line and form were standout in otherwise straightforward telling. Much the same was true when it came to the science of cloning. The two mediums seemed to propel her writing more than the characters engaging in them. Yet despite my constant yearning for A Nearly Perfect Copy to be closer to perfect than it actually was, I found myself turning pages, wanting to catch up to the characters. The plot was a good one, where you wanted to see what happens next. And the opposition of art and science spread over the theme of copying— a pairing so rich that I found myself mentioning the book in conversation a day or two later. If only the imperfections could be smoothed out, A Nearly Perfect Copy would be nearly perfect.