"The Bowl Is Already Broken" opens with a bang, as a curator shatters a Chinese bowl with a white exterior that "glows like T-shirts in a black-light biker...

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“The Bowl Is Already Broken”

by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
424 pp., $25

“The Bowl Is Already Broken” opens with a bang, as a curator shatters a Chinese bowl with a white exterior that “glows like T-shirts in a black-light biker bar.”

Such sparkling similes in themselves commend Mary Kay Zuravleff’s novel to lovers of language. But in addition, Zuravleff, a former editor of books and exhibition texts for the Smithsonian Institution, delivers an authoritative novel about the museum world that asks important questions, and delivers a well-drawn cast of characters in such numbers that I had to list their names and functions.

Promise Whittaker, a curator of paintings devoted to Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, is named acting director of an Asian museum whose building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is slated to be converted to a food court.

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Already overburdened with two young children, Promise is pregnant again. “She hadn’t managed to hire a competent baby-sitter or keep the basement dry; what made anyone think she could run a museum?”

The curator who breaks the bowl has just spearheaded a drive to raise a million dollars for the bowl’s purchase. A Chinese curator is misappropriating museum travel funds to pay for fertility treatments. And the retiring director goes on an archaeological trek in the Taklamakan Desert, where he is taken hostage by insurgents.

The profound discomforts of desert travel are described in sufficiently vivid detail to give pause to travelers apt to become so bewitched with nifty travel gear they forget their own physical limitations.

The matters in question are diversity and ethics, and Zuravleff doesn’t duck hard answers, or put a pretty face on “the international trafficking in sacred bric-a-brac.” Her wit is equal to her wisdom.