Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
In Aesop's Mirror: A Love Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), Maryalice Huggins uses a cast-off bit of furniture to tell a surprisingly complex story of American beginnings -- surprising, because the beginning of the book makes us think we know exactly what's coming. Huggins, an antiques restorer, finds a giant mirror at an out-of-the-way estate auction in Rhode Island, a mirror that, she discovers, belonged to a branch of the state's most aristocratic family, the Browns of Providence, and that probably is itself of American origin. She starts digging around in archives, finding little pieces of information and building up, it seems, to the usual final set-piece of the Antiques Roadshow genre: the money shot in the fancy New York City auction room, the moment when the lucky object is definitively plucked from the indignity of the trailer park or the subdivision and restored to its rightful glamour in the mansion or the museum.
Except that's not what happens. Huggins really loves her mirror and really loves American decorative arts, so much so that she crashes through that small and cloistered world's condescension (when she challenges one of the grandees of her field, she gets an email that puts her firmly in her place: "Maryalice, Wendy Cooper is a scholar") and indifference ("When I claimed ownership, I could sense his loss of interest. The name Maryalice Huggins was not going to add a distinguished provenance") in order to make her case. Huggins is scrappy and determined, even as she can feel herself "getting lost in my own research, my map becoming more fragmented, my intentions more vague."
Her often scathing portraits of the people connected with the mirror and her ungilded reactions to them, from her resentment toward the dealer who screws her out of more than $100,000 in the sale of an antique sofa to her annoyance with the sour WASPs who keep their massive family archives in scandalous disrepair, make the story of her obsession entertaining and fun to read; at one point she even finds herself banging on the gravestone of one of the mirror's long-departed owners, saying, "Come on, Anne. Where did you get that mirror?" But in an age in which art's bottom line is generally thought to be the bottom line, the book attests to the true reasons we cherish rare objects that have come down to us from the past: the way they elicit our desire to possess their beauty and their mystery.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of Why This World.
Books mentioned in this post