Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mrs. Charbuque

So my latest book was The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford. I actually finished it some time ago, while I was still working on my first post. I must say that this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I looked forward to the time each day when I was done with all tasks, and could shut my door, turn on the a.c., lie in bed, and just read. Hallmarks of a good book in my opinion.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is about a successful, early 1900s , middle-aged painter, who was feeling disillusioned with his art. He was tired of painting pleasing portraits for wealthy clients, and socialising amongst the moneyed class to secure their continued commissions. Like many artists, he wanted to paint for himself, and be free to express his creativity without limitations.

At his lowest point, he suddenly receives a mysterious request for a portrait. The conditions under which he must paint, should he accept the commission, are curious to say the least. His client, Mrs. Charbuque, turns out to be an increasingly difficult subject to capture on canvas, and his involvement with her leads him down a perilous path of danger, intrigue and self-discovery. Who she is, even what she is, becomes an obsession that threatens to undo his entire life. For Mrs. Charbuque is an enigma that no two artists would paint alike. What is the true Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque?

The plot of this novel was masterfully handled by the author Jeffrey Ford. He created so many questions in your mind that you just had to keep reading to find out the answers. The main character Piambo, though very flawed, came off as charming. His self-effacing comments were quite amusing, even when his foolhardy behaviour would prompt a disapproving sigh from me. There were many times when you wanted him to back away and abandon his task, yet on he pressed, and you felt no choice but to press on with him.

Mrs. Charbuque herself seemed creepy and unsettled - which is probably an accurate assessment of her in the end. There was one scene with her and Piambo that got on my nerves (As such scenes usually do with me. More about that another time I think).


I suppose it was appropriate for the story, but her masturbating while telling him about her past was a turn-off, and I'm tempted to think of it as the "obligatory sex scene" encountered in too many novels lately. Though this scene was in no way graphic, I will admit, I just wondered if it was really necessary. However, it could go to show just how imbalanced she was, and since it was not typical of the rest of the novel, I may consider that it served a purpose after all.

In the past I have been villified for stating that I dislike the graphic and/or unnecessary descriptions of sexual situations - some of them rather extreme - in modern novels. To me it cheapens the novel and rarely adds any substance to the story. The arguments I usually get are that an author should be able to write into the story whatever they want, and sincethey want the sex there then that gives it intrinsic value. Someone even remarked that authors should not edit their work with their readers in mind but essentially just write what they feel. I have several counters for that - but I digress too much at this time. Suffice it to say that I do not completely agree with the "hands off - it's Art!" mentality.

The one major, maybe not so major, critique I have of the story is that we did not get to know how Mrs. Charbuque died. I mean the cause of the death was as mysterious as her life, which I again suppose is apt, yet I couldn't help but feel cheated. Just as I learned how she came to live as she did, I wanted to know how she died as she did. The other question I think is left up to the reader to decide, is whether or not her ostensible powers were real after all. She herself believed them to be fake, yet her abilities may have had some validity judging by the events that followed her predictons.

My critiques are small, since overall I found the book to be very satisfying. The writing itself was fluid and eloquent, allowing you to concentrate on the "picture" it painted in your mind, without any misgivings about the quality of the "paintbrush" - so to speak. (Again, Dan Brown's name surfaces. I say no more. ) All in all, I gave The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque an unhesitating four stars.

Right now I'm on a book that it seems I started once before only to abandon. It is The Face in The Frost by John Bellairs. As I started reading I realised that parts were familiar to me. So far it has a Harry Potter, wizards, magic and adventure feel that I'm quite enjoying. We will see how that comes along.

Ack it's 10:37 pm. I should be abed. I feel like my posts may eventually become more personal - there are several non-literary things coming to mind that I'd like to post about. In time we shall see what this blog becomes. For now, adieu.

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