Review: The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
From the Publishers Weekly Starred Review:
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.
The first story I read by Jeffrey Ford was The Empire of Ice Cream and that delightful tale of synesthesia firmly lodged him on that shelf in my mind of authors to watch. It also remains one of my most frequently revisited memories of the Sci Fiction website, which at one moment in time was the sun which my view of the internet revolved around. Somehow, I’ve managed to read little else by Ford over the years. I was alerted to this particular novel by a promotional price on the eBook.
In New York 1893, an accomplished painter, Piambo, is offered a strange commission to paint the portrait of a woman solely based on the stories she tells hidden from view behind a screen. There’s quite a lot of money at stake and from the offset it feels like an extrapolation of the tug of war between the commercial and creative needs of a professional artist. Each tale she tells of her childhood and later history is more fantastical than the next and draws strange parallels with Piambo’s experiences.
One by one even the most unbelievable of her stories is validated or in some mundane way explained, yet the narrative tapestry she weaves and increasingly strange events Piambo witnesses progressively increase the feeling that our painter, narrator is doomed. However, Piambo’s desire as painter and his personal philosophy strive to present the truth of a subject, not just their outward appearance. We see this in the opening of the book as he paints an idealized portrait of wealthy donor while none to subtly implying the truth by including in the frame wilting flowers in an expensive vase and goldfish bowl. Another example bookends the novel as Piambo considers a series of landscapes his self portrait.
The particular creative driving force of our protagonist subverts the manipulations of his subject. It’s clear from the beginning that she derives some sense of satisfaction from asking the impossible from a talented individual. As the story progresses it becomes clear that she’s mentally disturbed and has over the years managed her deteriorating mind by dressing it up as creativity and showmanship. The power play she initiates with a truly talented individual in Piambo is a last ditch effort to gain control of her sanity. It may have worked in the past, seemingly transferring the worst of her mental issues to various egotistical artists, but in this case she’s revealed for who she is and is undone.
Ford expertly pieces this story together, each narrative twist, whether part of Piambo’s adventures or Mrs. Charbuque’s stories or the introduction of colorful side characters are all in dialog. The result is a delightfully self referential piece that attempts to answer twin identity related questions raised explicitly by the narrator early in the novel: “What have I become?” and “What am I now to do?” It answers them in spades in the context of the novel, but I’m left asking them about myself. Part of my answer was to write and publish this review. I’ve struggled with putting my thoughts in order for much of what I’ve read in the past few years and I’ve missed the dialog that putting my thoughts online provides. Hopefully this will help break that rut.
Thank you Piambo. Thank you Mr. Ford.