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First-time author Vigderman uses a combination of biography, art appreciation and personal reflection in an attempt to penetrate the character of the woman responsible for Boston's Gardner Museum, an eclectic collection of art works arranged according to whim in a building designed to look like a 15th-century Venetian palace. Finding previous biographies inadequate, and lacking Mrs. Gardner's personal papers (she burned them shortly before her death in 1924), Vigderman, who teaches in the English department at Kenyon College, ponders the objects in the museum, looking for clues to the Gardner's elusive motivations. When this fails to yield insight into Mrs. Gardner's psyche, Vigderman decides to examine the personalities of Mrs. Gardner's friends— such as Francis Marion Crawford, who may have been the great love of her life; Henry Adams's wife, Clover, a woman of similar social background and unconventional bent; and the men who advised her, such as the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson. These excursions into contemporaneous lives make interesting reading, but they don't shed much light on Mrs. Gardner. Finally, Vigderman is forced to admit that all we can know of Isabella Stewart Gardner is the art she collected and the way we respond to it, a disappointing conclusion to an intriguing but unsatisfying book. Illus. (Feb.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.