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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.

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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
4.0 out of 5 stars A Nice Little Mystery and a Trip Back in Time April 26 2004
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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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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2.0 out of 5 stars F l a w e d Oct. 11 2002
I started this book in pleasant anticipation, influenced by numerous positive reviews. I was, alas, disappointed.
In the section devoted to acknowledgements, Mr Ford concedes that he has taken factual and historical liberties in order to create fiction that excites and thrills. Which is, within limits, acceptable. But Mr Ford takes it too far and ends up sounding inauthentic. The book is praised as a blend between Henry James and Raymond Chandler (by the publisher) and I am certain that both gentlemen in question would have had rather vehement objections to the comparison. The only parallel to Henry James that comes to mind is the coincidence of the time OF which Mr Ford writes and the time IN which Mr James wrote. Mr James is the master of the formal, stylized sentence, Mr Ford tends to the vernacular. When, at times, he tries to emulate the speech of the turn-of-the-century, he simply sounds affectated and pretentious. Chandler's protagonist Marlowe and his prototypes in that author's early short stories are conscientous, moral men- Piambo, in his treatment of his erstwhile mentor, M. Sabott, is not. I also missed the wisecracks that make Mr Chandler's work so delightful to read.
Mrs Charbuque's proclamations on the role of woman in society befit more the feminist sentiments of the second half of the 20th century than the ideas of the early suffragette movement.
The book, in its descriptions of characters (with the exception of the hero and Mrs. Charbuque), is the equivalent of the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder so much admired by Piambo: broad brushstrokes (or, more accurately, sweeps of the palette knife- a favourite technique of Mr Ryder's) rather than attention to details.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Novel Of The Ninteenth Century Nov. 30 2002
A PORTRAIT OF MRS. CHARBUQUE isn't an historical novel
set in late 19th century Manhattan, so much as it's a
late 19th century novel, produced in the early 21st century.
Finney's TIME AND AGAIN, Carr's THE ALIENIST, by comparison,
are tourist guides. They are about the place and period.
But not of them.

MRS. C. occurs in a certain Manhattan. We see no more
of it than an inhabitant would. There is no trace of our
century in the viewpoint. The central character, the
painter Piambo, is very definitely a nineteenth century American.
The bubbling world of American painting, caught
somewhere between John Singer Sargent and Charles
Pinkham Rider is presented with no distracting
foreshadowing The central theme of artistic integrity
is presented without a speck of irony on it.
Ford can not set his foot wrong when he's walking in the
19th century.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fortune's End
The delightful Mrs. Charbuque captures not only the artist commissioned to paint her - unseen - but also we readers as well. Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2008 by Dave and Joe
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book!
The style of Mr. Ford's writing and the intriguing story he tells make this book an absolute pleasure to read. Read more
Published on Nov. 16 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars Ford is quite clever!
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... Read more
Published on July 11 2003 by Arthur Enyedy
3.0 out of 5 stars 2/3 of a good book
This is almost an amazing book.
The concept is intriguing, and through most of it just the enigma of Mrs. Charbuque kept me reading. Read more
Published on June 6 2003 by Rachel E. Pollock
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful story, even better prose...
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. Read more
Published on May 16 2003 by z
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing
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.
Published on May 11 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars exceptionally well done
really well worth reading. sort of a cross between caleb carr and jonathan carroll. i breezed through it in 2 days, and only wished it were longer. Read more
Published on March 24 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Ignore Any Bad Reviews -- This is Ford's Best Novel Yet
I was up until almost 2 o'clock this morning with this book. Started it last night just before I went to bed, and couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. Read more
Published on Oct. 19 2002 by Jerry Hewett
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
With great style and atmosphere, Ford takes you back to turn-of-century New York for a tale of a painter who must make a portrait of an unseen patron. Read more
Published on Oct. 9 2002
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