"Art is the new cocaine," says ambitious Simon Pryce, owner of the up-market Simon Pryce Gallery situated in the heart of Chelsea, New York.
No one knows this better than Simon's receptionist, Mia McMurray, who is considered to be part of a group of gallery girls who have a reputation for being snotty and full of attitude.
Mia is, in fact, a rather sensitive soul and also a frustrated artist who has had to endure years of Simon's taunts, treated by him with a patronizing combination of familiarity and disdain as
he tries to catch a ride on the fast-track art bubble to fame and fortune.
Simon hopes that his fortune will be found in the works of artist Jeffrey Finelli, who has just retuned to New York from Italy. In his fifties, Jeffrey is judged by the art world to be emerging artist, thus good enough for Simon to consider holding an opening of a collection of Jeffrey's latest works, the centerpiece of which is the titular painting
Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him.
Designed to be "about how we meet God through our creative acts," the work is an exquisitely rendered portrait of a young girl holding a small canvas of her own in one perfectly detailed hand, along with a dripping paintbrush in the other. On opening night, Lulu positively overwhelms the crowd, sending everyone into raptures of amazement.
When Jeffrey is run over by a taxi while taking a cigarette break outside the gallery, the value of the painting takes off. Now the toast of the New York art world, everyone wants a stake in Lulu's ownership. Simon plays the part of the amiable but grieving dealer, kissing cheeks and looking appropriately grave while offering cocktails, gleeful that the death of Jeffrey is finally going to put him out of debt and onto the roster of dealers rewarded for their ability to pick winners.
When Finelli's niece, the stunningly beautiful Lulu, suddenly appears, claiming to be the real muse and Jeffrey's inspiration for the work, she automatically claims ownership. Simon is irritated, as he
has promised to sell the painting to a hot young Hollywood actor. True to his fashion, Simon schemes with Machiavellian glee, determined against all odds to obtain the absolute best price for the work.
Mia watches these antics with a mixture of morbid fascination and unfettered cynicism. Yet she, too, falls prey to the lovely Lulu, who wields the power of the muse that is bestowed on her by others because of her connection to the painting and to her uncle.
At the heart of the story is the beautiful painting of Lulu and the almost existential effect it has on those who admire it
as well as those who seek to possess it. Even Mia comes under its spell; when the painting is hung on the wall opposite her desk, she starts to question what it is that makes her think she could ever be an artist, and she yearns for the world to acknowledge her as brilliant and talented.
This is a fascinating tale of New York City's self-congratulatory art scene in all its snippy, back-biting glory.
The ultimate strength of the novel comes from Ganek's ability to portray, with a type of caustic humor, this privileged and exclusive community of wheelers and dealers, art advisers and gawkers, along with the curators and art historians who all seem to have a stake in the outcome of the Lulu painting.
For Mia, it's all part of the job: the phony friendliness; the trawling for information; the pretentious art-speak, and the endless networking in this elite and fashionable world of art openings, parties, museum shows, galas, and sexy installations, "all that stuff about death and sex," where every day a new gallery opens, filled with more and more art.