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The Portrait Of Mrs. Charbuque: A Novel [Paperback]

Jeffrey Ford
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 15 2003

A mysterious and richly evocative novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque tells the story of portraitist Piero Piambo, who is offered a commission unlike any other. The client is Mrs. Charbuque, a wealthy and elusive woman who asks Piambo to paint her portrait, though with one bizarre twist: he may question her at length on any topic, but he may not, under any circumstances, see her. So begins an astonishing journey into Mrs. Charbuque's world and the world of 1893 New York society in this hypnotically compelling literary thriller.


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From Publishers Weekly

Ford expertly created a surreal alternate landscape in his acclaimed fantasies The Physiognomy and Memoranda; here, in his fourth novel, sepia-colored old New York is the fever-dream world. Piero Piambo is the portraitist of choice among New York's nouveau riche in 1893, but his career fills him with self-loathing. When a blind man with uncannily white eyes offers him "a job like no other" painting the mysterious Mrs. Charbuque Piambo quickly accepts, as the hefty commission will allow him to abandon society portraiture. But the terms of the deal are very strange: Mrs. Charbuque insists that she will hide behind a screen; to divine what she looks like, Piambo may ask her questions, but not about her appearance. It soon becomes clear that she will not be interrogated; instead, like a possibly "unhinged" Scheherazade, she mesmerizes Piambo with her story of growing up convinced she possessed psychic powers conferred on her by twin snowflakes. Piambo's opium-addicted friend Shenz convinces him to investigate his mysterious model, leading them to interview a deranged "turdologist" who sheds light on her past. But then Piambo is assaulted by a man identifying himself as Mr. Charbuque, demanding to know why the artist is "seeing my wife." And there are other dangers about, as the city is under attack by a parasite that eats "the soft tissue of the eye" and causes its victims to weep blood. Add dangerously unstable characters speaking with delicious floridity, unexpected bursts of macabre humor and violence, and a gender-bending subplot that subtly picks up steam, and you have a standout literary thriller.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-A true literary thriller. In New York City at the turn of the 20th century, Piambo is a young artist earning his bread painting "corrective" portraits of plain society wives, beautifying them for the canvas and their husbands. He has a crisis of conscience when one woman, standing under her portrait, leans close and whispers, "I hope you die." As he restlessly wanders the streets that night, a blind man approaches, claiming to know him by his dishonest smell, and offers him the commission of a lifetime: paint a portrait of his employer and receive compensation so grand that he will never have to paint another wife. The catch? Piambo will not be permitted to see Mrs. Charbuque. She will sit behind a screen, and he may ask her questions; from the answers he is to divine her essence. If he captures her likeness, compensation will triple. From this irresistible premise, Ford devilishly spins his story in prose so controlled-yet so dark with underlying fever and inevitability-that it calls to mind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The philosophical and psychological aspects loom large, and Mrs. Charbuque is a near-masterpiece-part sphinx, part hydra, the stuff of the most potent myths. A subplot involving a possible plague adds some hardcore spookiness and, of course, points back to Mrs. Charbuque. This book is smart, spellbinding, and sure to knock any teen's favorite suspense/horror tale from top place to second.
Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
MUCH TO my unease, Mrs. Reed positioned herself, all evening, beneath or immediately to either side of her new portrait. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fortune's End Jan. 4 2008
By Dave and Joe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The delightful Mrs. Charbuque captures not only the artist commissioned to paint her - unseen - but also we readers as well. The premise of the book struck me right away as incredibly clever. You already know that the book is about an artist challenged to paint a portrait of a woman who he is not allowed to see, he is allowed to talk to her and ask her questions about her life, and from her answers he is to find inspiration to do his painting. I admit I had a firm picture of her in my head by the time brush was put to canvas. The stories she tells in response to questions are just on the edge of bizarre but compelling enough for a picture of the 'woman' to rise from the words. Well done, Mr. Ford, thanks for a great read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Nice Little Mystery and a Trip Back in Time April 26 2004
Format:Paperback
I bought "The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque" not knowing quite what to expect, but was quickly captivated by both its premise and its style. I'm not frequently a reader of mystery novels, nor do I read historical fiction very often. I've delved into Dan Brown, Caleb Carr, and Mark Frost--and in all cases I've ultimately come away disappointed. When reading these books I'd felt either that the author thought I was stupid or that he thought his characters were stupid.
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book! Nov. 16 2003
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
The style of Mr. Ford's writing and the intriguing story he tells make this book an absolute pleasure to read. Although the ending was no on par with the rest of the book, I still gave this book five stars because it is so enjoyable to read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Ford is quite clever! July 12 2003
Format:Hardcover
This book has a nifty idea, and well imagined setting, excellent characters (I especially liked the hero's girlfriend and his opium addicted painting pal - Ford portrays them as realistic, but sympathetic and intrigueing) and a plot full of menace and mystery. What a great idea - ask a portraitist to paint the face of a woman he can never see. I don't want to give anything away - read this book, and I like the Physnigomy series even better.
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3.0 out of 5 stars 2/3 of a good book June 6 2003
Format:Paperback
This is almost an amazing book.
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful story, even better prose... May 16 2003
By z
Format:Hardcover
Ford's genre-defying work continues in this novel, a wonderful read that I'd recommend to practically anyone with an interest in reading something non-formulaic. It's part mystery, part speculative fiction, part period piece, and it's all written with classical style and elegance. If I hadn't read Ford's earlier works, I don't know if I'd have bought this book - in fact, I doubt it. My reading tastes really aren't that diverse. But being such a huge fan of the prior books, I had to give it a shot.
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing May 12 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I thought it was an intriguing premise from the start. I, too, was trying to draw in my mind what Mrs. Charbuque would look like. It is very entertaining and worth the read.
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Format:Hardcover
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.
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