Here Ford treats both his readers and his creations with respect. His plot does not rely on amazing coincidence or amazing ineptitude to propel it along; nor does he treat his novel as an opportunity to impress the reader with his research on 19th century New York City or the art of portraiture. Instead, both provide a rich, but not overwrought, backdrop for a satisfying nugget of mystery.
If you're looking for the next great American novel, this is not it. However, if you are looking for a little guilt-free escapist fun that is more substantive than most of what populates the best-seller list, then "The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque" is well worth your time.
The concept is intriguing, and through most of it just the enigma of Mrs. Charbuque kept me reading. I felt that the "subplot" (the mysterious disease that causes ppl to bleed from the eyes) was too sporadic and hamhandedly dealt with, and i felt the entire ending to be a bit of a tidied-up cop-out. I wish that the author had taken another 50-100 pages to flesh out the mystery-disease subplot and to wind up the story in a way that didn't feel so slam-bang. For something that purported to challenge gender and identity, it felt a bit rote.
Ford paints scenes as vivid as any working writer today with very spare words - a rare gift. Not a sentence seems wasted in reading Ford's work, and the same holds true here. Not even a chapter disappoints. No matter which genre attracts you, try this book - you will enjoy it immensely. It'd make for a excellent film, too, in the right hands.
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.