The Bowl Is Already Broken, by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Museum life carefully curated by a mistress of misappropriation
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The Independent Culture

Things are looking grim for the Museum of Asian Art. The esoteric collections of Chinese imperial porcelain, carved jades and Japanese prints are threatened by plans to convert the galleries into an ace café with no museum attached, because "People want bathrooms and bagels near the subway". Faced with this bleak prospect, the dynamic director disappears to a dig in the Taklamakan desert (where he's promptly taken hostage), leaving petite Promise Whittaker to defend the Alamo.

But Promise would rather bury herself in 16th-century Persian manuscripts than rally colleagues fixed on their own rivalries. Dandy Arthur Franklin is obsessed with a bowl once owned by Thomas Jefferson; patrician Talbot Perry is miffed that he didn't land the acting directorship; while Min Chen, curator of ancient Chinese art, is financing her fertility treatment with travel funds. To crown it all, Promise finds she's pregnant.

Zuravleff sets the bowl rolling in the first sentence. Arthur's ceramic treasure slips from his grasp and is transformed with each bounce into dust and shards. Scrolling back six months, she shows us how we got to this shattering moment. But was it a mishap or a canny means of focusing attention on the quiet museum with its irreplaceable booty?

Spiking her tale with humour, Zuravleff shows how neatly everything interconnects. The museum director, kidnapped by vicious guerrillas, has spent his working life surrounded by art portraying "violence too graphic for cable television". Zuravleff creates credible characters and is emotionally astute, particularly regarding relationships where couples feel strained by too much work and not enough time. However, her tone flips between wise and cute.

Zuravleff soaks her prose with erudite facts about everything from bronze dings to the exquisite Sufi poetry of Rumi, and ponders the historical legacy of those bagging artefacts from poorer cultures. Yet is the novelist-collector so different? Enriching her pages with such cultural references, Zuravleff might also be guilty of a kind of artistic plunder.

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