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The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque: A Novel
Synopses & Reviews
The toast of 1893 New York society, the portraitist Piero Piambo has his pick of choice assignments. Acclaimed by his peers and his "betters," he is a fixture in the city's most opulent salons, yet he fears he has sold his soul to arrive there. But then comes a commission unlike any other — one that will test Piambo's talents, his will...and his sanity.
The client is a Mrs. Charbuque, and the offer she makes to the artist is as bizarre and intriguing as it is financially rewarding. Piambo must paint the lady's portrait, and for the service he may name any price. However, though he may question her at length on any topic, he must never look upon his subject. And if the painting ends up a true likeness, his payment will be doubled.
With sketchbook in hand and his "model" hidden behind an elegant screen, the artist begins his haunting descent into her life and mind. Carried by her words through a strange childhood in a world of ice — where she aided an obsessed, perhaps murderous, father in his study of the divine language of snowflakes — and across a history marked by fame and despair, desire and rage, phantasm and myth, Piambo is alternately seduced and repulsed by the story she has to tell. Yet each session leaves him more determined than ever to unwrap the enigma that is Mrs. Charbuque.
But while he struggles to capture in oils the face of a woman he has never seen, a series of horrific and inexplicable deaths rocks the outside city. On street corners, in the alleys off the bustling shopping areas, and between the crumbling tenements, anonymous women are dying, their lifeblood flowing freely like tears from their eyes. And the deeper Piambo is drawn into Mrs. Charbuque's world, the more he begins to suspect that these terrible events, his impossible task, and his odd "benefactress" are somehow intimately connected.
An astonishing amalgam of the works of Henry James and Raymond Chandler, Jeffrey Ford's The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is a rare and rewarding reading experience — equally satisfying as a hypnotically compelling literary work, a richly atmospheric historical novel, and a page-turning thriller. It will leave an indelible mark.
"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." Publishers Weekly
"[E]ccentrically satisfying....Ford's curious union of fantasy, science, mysticism and art is set in a Victorian Gotham that recalls an Edith Wharton novel, only with furtive, menacing shadows lurking behind the hansom cabs....The mystery of the plague-stricken victims and its connection to Mrs. Charbuque unfolds with suspense...but it's Ford's quirky characters, rather than the twists and turns of plot, that are the book's treasures....Many of Ford's scenes, especially those depicting Mrs. Charbuque's outlandish fables, are like surreptitious visits to a circus freak show, and Ford carefully uses Piambo's sense of wonder and humor to shift from the fantastical to the real....[Y]ou get the feeling that Ford is marveling, maybe giggling, at what's happening too, and just as entranced to not want it to end." Suzy Hansen, Salon.com
About the Author
Jeffrey Ford is a professor of writing and early American literature at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and the author of three previous novels: the award-winning New York Times Notable Book The Physiognomy, Memoranda, and The Beyond.
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