When describing the good points of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford, the list is long and begins with the attention-getting cover. On the edition I downloaded from Instafreebie, an attractive woman dressed formally in what might be thought of as Victorian-era clothing leads me to believe this is a historical novel. The subtitle, “The Soul is a Dark Canvas,” makes me think there is a psychological element. A blurb from the Baltimore Sun says there is Art History, cool. It is not my strong interest but I like discovering new information. “Hitchcockian suspense,” the phrase doesn’t roll off the tongue but I am a fan of Hitchcock. “Pynchonesque augury,” seems a bit over the top and I don’t like Pynchon. With four pluses and one negative, I am going to read this. Also, I got it from Instafreebie. It sells for USD 6.99 on Amazon with no caveat for a KU read. The cover here is the Amazon cover.
This is one of those novels which make me ask, “How can such a good book be offered for free?” The answer might be that it has been around awhile; it was published in 2009.
I like historical novels and am confident in my ability to separate fact from fiction in the historical fiction genre. Jeffrey Ford is helpful here when in the acknowledgments at the end of the novel he lists sources he consulted while he “played it fast and loose with the facts,” (loc 3972). New Yorkers might be pleased with descriptions of the development of 1893 New York. Details of transportation that include horse carts and the difficulty of crossing streets during rainstorms (the mud sucked shoes from the feet) bring readers a sense of reality. The descriptions of living accommodations; the difference between living in a Vanderbilt mansion or an artists loft, may resonate with those today concerned with wealth disparity. References to famous period painters, political institutions like Tammany Hall, famous criminal gangs of the time like the Dead Rabbits Gang all make historical fiction fans like me happy.
Piambo is a struggling painter but not because of his income stream. He is making money due to his work as a portrait artist but the nature of this work is that he must lie to keep clients happy. There can be no gaps in the teeth, unattractive moles or freckles, and no unattractive evidence of aging. Piambo needs to break out of this style, he needs to reflect, he wants to be honest with his expression delivered through painting. That requires money so, OK, just one more portrait. Mrs. Charbuque wants to commission her portrait and offers an insanely high commission, three times the combined income from all presently proposed work if Piambo will paint her portrait in one month. If the portrait is accurate, that high commission will be doubled. Other than the time limit, there is a further provision that Priambo cannot look at her. She will sit behind a screen, Priambo can ask her any questions except about her physical appearance, and Priambo must finish the portrait based on his perceptions of her appearance and on anecdotes she will relate. Now we have the psychological element. No way is this normal.
Hitchcock is known for surprises. There are plenty throughout the novel and a huge one at the end. Priambo has friends, some of whom will try to help him figure out this riddle. There are surprises throughout the novel about each of his friends. Mrs. Charbuque has a care provider, not due to ill health but to help her preserve her secret identity. Watkin is also an enigma and is not a friend of Priambo. There are several surprises in the development of Watkin. The reference to Hitchcock is well deserved.
The tag “Art History” is accurate at first in the obvious references to famous period painters but even more interesting to me was Ford’s description of styles and technique. The idea that painters had to be almost chemists as they determined what mixtures of chemicals would highlight or moderate which colors are interesting. The descriptions of how the canvas is stretched, the stages of producing a final painting, and the various media (charcoal, paint, varnish) used all contribute to the educational element of the book.
The telling of fortunes and futures based on snowflakes, portents from the night sky, and occasional and unpredictable messages from the “twins” satisfy the augury tag. There is a mythological element as we take a closer look at “the Sybil” (which may or may not be capitalized).
As if these elements did not make this a win-win-win read by themselves, there is my favorite part, the language used by Ford. It is not quite “period” English but there is an attempt to make the characters express themselves in 1893 English. This causes sex scenes (few) to be expressed in terms that might confuse Sunday School attendees. They would know something is going on but would not be sure what it is. This language style is occasionally betrayed by humorous asides that seem more suited to 2009 (and later).
This is one of the best books I have discovered through Instafreebies and validates my belief that there is good stuff to be found … for free. I gave this novel five stars on Goodreads and a highly recommended on my blog, a recommendation I do not make often.