Jeffrey Ford's new novel is The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, something of a departure from his previous novels, though it does share some of the same obsessions and tropes, and of course it features Ford's easily recognizable prose, lush and at times overheated, but enjoyable and effective for the most part. But his earlier novels were set in exotic fantasy landscapes -- this book is set in turn of the 20th Century New York -- though Ford makes it seem exotic enough!
Mrs. Charbuque is a mysterious woman who engages the services of the novel's narrator, Piero Piambo, a portrait painter who wishes he could be something better. Mrs. Charbuque offers to pay him enough money to allow him to pursue his dream, but on one condition: he must attempt to paint her without ever seeing her. Much of the novel is given to Mrs. Charbuque's stories of her strange life: a father who predicted the future by reading snowflakes, an unfaithful mother, her later life telling fortunes, and her unusual relationship with her husband, who is allowed to see her no more than any other person. Piambo's struggles to paint his mysterious patron are complicated by the growing jealousy of both his lover, and of the apparently estranged Mr. Charbuque. At the same time his old friend Shenz, another portrait painter, offers to track down clues to Mrs. Charbuque's identity. And finally a mysterious plague is infesting New York: women are found bleeding to death through their eyes.
The resolution is striking and oddly pulpish. The novel is great fun, mixing outlandish mysteries with sensitive philosophical speculation, and garish adventure with concerns about the character of the artist. These perhaps disparate elements in the end work together quite well: this is a quite satisfying book.