The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque: A Novel

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9780066211268: The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque: A Novel

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.

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About the Author:

Jeffrey Ford is the author of three previous story collections and eight previous novels, including the Edgar® Award-winning The Girl in the Glass and the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Shadow Year. A former professor of writing and early American literature, Ford now writes full-time in Ohio, where he lives with his wife.

From Publishers Weekly:

Ford expertly created a surreal alternate landscape in his acclaimed fantasies The Physiognomy and Memoranda; here, in his fourth novel, sepia-colored old New York is the fever-dream world. Piero Piambo is the portraitist of choice among New York's nouveau riche in 1893, but his career fills him with self-loathing. When a blind man with uncannily white eyes offers him "a job like no other" painting the mysterious Mrs. Charbuque Piambo quickly accepts, as the hefty commission will allow him to abandon society portraiture. But the terms of the deal are very strange: Mrs. Charbuque insists that she will hide behind a screen; to divine what she looks like, Piambo may ask her questions, but not about her appearance. It soon becomes clear that she will not be interrogated; instead, like a possibly "unhinged" Scheherazade, she mesmerizes Piambo with her story of growing up convinced she possessed psychic powers conferred on her by twin snowflakes. Piambo's opium-addicted friend Shenz convinces him to investigate his mysterious model, leading them to interview a deranged "turdologist" who sheds light on her past. But then Piambo is assaulted by a man identifying himself as Mr. Charbuque, demanding to know why the artist is "seeing my wife." And there are other dangers about, as the city is under attack by a parasite that eats "the soft tissue of the eye" and causes its victims to weep blood. 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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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