A secretive painter who may not be all he appears and a bored, wealthy socialite are at the center of Amber Brock's hypnotic debut novel, A Fine Imitation. Brock, who teaches British Literature at an Atlanta high school, shares the story behind the book and explains how art shaped the journeys of her characters.
My novel, A Fine Imitation, tells the story of a wealthy beauty, Vera, who comes to realize how suffocating her rarefied world of 1920s Manhattan really is when she falls in love with a mysterious painter and unexpectedly reconnects with an old friend. It’s a tale full of false identities. Some are obvious: the artist, Emil Hallan, is not who he claims to be and has dark, dangerous secrets lurking in his past. Vera, on the other hand, spends most of her life believing she is the woman she wants to be. Hallan’s arrival upends her world and makes her question that certainty, much the way her relationship with her college friend Bea did 10 years earlier. Vera comes to see that she’s been pretending to be the person others in her life (particularly her mother) wanted her to be. As glamorous and glittering as her life is, it’s all surface, all a show. She’s been playing a part, imitating someone else’s style, and the cracks show—her life has been, in effect, a forgery.
In writing A Fine Imitation, my first novel, I fell deep into the art world, researching the Spanish golden age of painting, Vermeer’s work, and the art nouveau style so popular in Vera’s youth. I also studied cases of art forgery, and I found myself considering how many false works were discovered because of the exceptional difficulty of copying another artist’s style. In the very act of attempting another artist’s use of color or shading, these forgers were giving themselves away. To my mind, this hit on a central fact of human nature. When we pretend to be someone we’re not, the truth of who we are tends to “out” us.
When we pretend to be someone we’re not, the truth of who we are tends to “out” us.
These became the twin issues in A Fine Imitation: a deep focus on visual art intertwined with the little forgeries of daily existence, something I think the title expresses beautifully. I think this performative aspect of day-to-day life—the small ways in which we try to meet other people’s expectations, the white lies and fake smiles—is something that everyone feels, and I really wanted to explore that in the novel.
Researching the novel brought back memories of the first time I felt I really “got” a work of art, Diego de Velazquez’s Las meninas. I didn’t know before then how to appreciate art outside of looking at it in a museum and thinking something along the lines of, “Ooh, that’s pretty” or “I could never do that.” I never understood that a static work of art could tell a dynamic story. In the painting, a court portrait of the Spanish royal family, Velasquez also included himself. It’s both a portrait and a self-portrait, a fascinating riddle of perspective. If the painter is in the painting, whose perspective does the viewer take? And how does that change the narrative? I never fully comprehended how closely related visual art and storytelling were until I encountered Velazquez’s masterwork, how a work of art tells a story, and how point-of-view can change the narrative. That one painting opened a world of characters, adventures and mysteries to me. I relished being able to return to a world that I loved, that of visual art, in writing A Fine Imitation.
Art is in the creation, and as humans, we have an innate desire to create. That act of construction even extends to ourselves, as we fashion the different versions of ourselves that we present to others. A Fine Imitation is about what happens when Vera realizes that the woman she’s pretending to be is a work of fiction. Interestingly, it is in the stories of art that she finds her truth.
Author photo by Nina Parker.