- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow; Perennial ed. edition (May 27 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060936177
- ISBN-13: 978-0060936174
- Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.9 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 422 g
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,411,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque: A Novel Paperback – May 27 2003
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About the Author
Jeffrey Ford is the author of three previous story collections and eight previous novels, including the Edgar® Award-winning The Girl in the Glass and the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Shadow Year. A former professor of writing and early American literature, Ford now writes full-time in Ohio, where he lives with his wife.
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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.
No spoilers from me on this one. I don't want to ruin it for anyone else. If you like Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, and Paul Witcover, then this is a book you *must* have in your collection.
This one smells like the next World Fantasy Award for Best Novel to me.
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.
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. The intention in both cases is to capture the essence of the subject, but here Mr Ford (unlike Mr Ryder) fails. If this book were a movie, the casting would have been left to StereoType, Incorporated- We Specialize in Clichés! The book's most interesting character (to me, at least), Piambo's fellow painter Shenz, is, to say the least, heavily inspired by the figure of Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (to which work Mr Ford refers- I suppose he considers it cute). Mr Ford seems to have written the book after seeing the Hughes Brothers' film, 'From Hell' with Johnny Depp. Shenz, with his habit of opium, bears resemblances to the inspector portrayed by Mr Depp. This sense of cliché also applies to Samantha Ryder, Piambo's love interest and Father Loomis (the benevolent and liberal priest). At times it is almost too much.
But, all in all, if one succeeds in suspending one's disbelief, it is an entertaining book. My advice is to wait for the paperback edition and to buy it at the airport or train station bookstore before flying or riding home for the Christmas holidays.
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set in late 19th century Manhattan, so much as it's a
late 19th century novel, produced in the early 21st...Read more