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The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
Jeffrey Ford
HarperCollins/William Morrow, 310 pages

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
Jeffrey Ford
Jeffrey Ford's first novel was Vanitas. His second, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award. He lives in New Jersey.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fantasy Writer's Assistant
SF Site Interview: Jeffrey Ford
SF Site Review: Memoranda
SF Site Review: The Physiognomy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

"Were I to read an account of something similar, even in a novel by a writer of arabesques, I could not help but scoff and close the cover."
Fortunately the hero of Jeffrey Ford's latest macabre romance fails to heed his own mean when confronted by the fantastic which overtakes his life, and it is equally doubtful that the reader will be able to either by the time he or she encounters the author's tongue-in-cheek admonition, already far too engaged and captivated to envision ever putting the novel down. As should comes as no surprise to those who've been following Ford's career, he has turned in another superlative story, rich in setting and imagery, designed to both confound and tantalize his audience, with a tale wondrously plotted and written with an intelligence at once playful yet serious. Possessing elements of mystery and horror reminiscent of "Rappaccini's Daughter," or the more contemporary wonder of Jonathan Carroll, this is a work that bridges literature and genre, reaffirming again that the fantastic can offer much more than simple tales of trolls and dragons.

Set within the parlors, theatre and at times seamier streets of Manhattan during the second presidency of Grover Cleveland, Jeffrey Ford creates a landscape at once accurate and alive in its historic verisimilitude, while imbued with a fairy-tale atmosphere both real and imagined. The central figure to this story is a painter, a portraitist for the nouveau riche, at a time when industrial wealth was coming to define and shape the city that has become the monetary heart -- and some would claim spiritual core -- of America. In many ways himself a parvenu, Piambo has parasitically shared in this newfound wealth, third generation of an Italian immigrant family, a painter classically trained who has turned his talents to mirroring his patrons in the manner in which he knows they wish to be viewed, if required creating beauty where there is none. His abilities at mimicry as well as flattery have gained him some fame and fortune, even though his portraits are but an emulation of "the technically perfect, stylistically safe work of [John Singer] Sargent's... so popular with the moneyed class." Like the world in which he moves, his work is dedicated to a "the tyranny of vanity" in which honesty plays little role.

Yet despite the material comfort and acclaim success has brought him, Piambo has begun to become restless and disenchanted with his painterly sleight of hand and parlor tricks, wondering if perhaps his art might represent something more -- the typical mid-life crisis if you will. He has begun to be stalked by a suspicion that, in his pandering to the desires and often misanthropic features leering out behind the looking glass, that he has somehow betrayed not only himself, but his art. He imagines that if only he could free himself enough financially, buy himself some more time, that he could gain the freedom necessary to work on a painting emancipated from the demands and expectations of his patrons. Sometimes one should beware of what one wishes for...

Like the references to the genie's lamp that leavens the narrative, Piambo is granted his wish: "a job like no other." The blind servant of a mysterious and wealthy woman, Mrs. Charbuque, approaches him with a commission, an offer that will pay more than his annual income. And a promise is made: that if the portrait is a success, that if Mrs. Charbuque is satisfied that he has truly been able to render her image, his fee will be doubled, leaving Piambo a very rich man. The financial opportunity the artist has hoped for seems at hand. However, there is a singular catch, a unique stipulation: in painting her portrait Piambo will not be allowed to view his subject! Instead he will be required to conjure her features based solely upon conversations he has with her at her home, while she'll remain hidden behind a screen. For her part, she will answer any inquiries he might pose her, so long as those questions in no way touch upon her appearance. Dread outcomes are hinted at should he attempt to see her. At first Piambo refuses, finding the entire proposition absurd. But acknowledging that even if he fails he will be well rewarded, and in some ways intrigued by the challenge as well as the mystery his client presents, he accepts, anticipating at the least a payment substantial enough to finance his aspirations.

This alluring premise sets the stage for visitations and reminiscences by Mrs. Charbuque that test the limits of Piambo's credulity, while further raising conjectures as to her actual identity. The tales she tells Piambo of her life allow her to continually elude him, her image as strange and ephemeral as the metaphysical conjurors she grew up with, or the screen of augury behind which she made her fortune. What starts as an impossible if relatively harmless commission soon enough takes on the aspect of an obsession: "that woman has your mind, Piambo. If you are not careful the rest will follow..." The struggle to envision her features becomes entangled by a history too incredible to fully believe in, and a desire to achieve in paint if not in the flesh all that the artist has imagined as well as desired. There is a sense he is being toyed with, that his commission is, as Mrs. Charbuque calls it, a "game," though where his participation begins and ends, and its actual nature, becomes increasingly unclear. And the bizarre character of this commission, and the equally unusual relationship with his client, begins to bleed over into Piambo's otherwise pedestrian life: a dead and deadly husband starts calling on him, while a horrifying disease suddenly manifests in the city. Piambo finds he is being haunted by his past, and at times no longer certain of his present reality.

Through this narrative of events, Jeffrey Ford weaves a wonderful thread of mythic and classical allusion, playing and mirroring metaphor, while constructing a mystery in which both the characters and the reader are warned of red herrings. A tale perhaps of redemption, or alternately a delve into the nature of identity or gender, a celebration of wonder that may parody religion while more obviously contemplating the act of creation, the author is too clever to reveal every intention clearly, providing answers or an announcement of purpose without leaving questions for the reader to ponder. This is, after all, in part a mystery, whose meaning may be lost in revealing, but another belief mislaid and forgotten in the telling. In this sense the author leaves us both fulfilled while wanting just a little bit more. And is this not perhaps the promise as well as purpose of the writer's art?

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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