Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque: A Novel

( 4 )


A mysterious and richly evocative novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque tells the story of portraitist Piero Piambo, who is offered a commission unlike any other. The client is Mrs. Charbuque, a wealthy and elusive woman who asks Piambo to paint her portrait, though with one bizarre twist: he may question her at length on any topic, but he may not, under any circumstances, see her. So begins an astonishing journey into Mrs. Charbuque's world and the world of 1893 New York society in this hypnotically compelling ...

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A mysterious and richly evocative novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque tells the story of portraitist Piero Piambo, who is offered a commission unlike any other. The client is Mrs. Charbuque, a wealthy and elusive woman who asks Piambo to paint her portrait, though with one bizarre twist: he may question her at length on any topic, but he may not, under any circumstances, see her. So begins an astonishing journey into Mrs. Charbuque's world and the world of 1893 New York society in this hypnotically compelling literary thriller.

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Editorial Reviews

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. National print advertising; author tour. (June 4) Forecast: Handselling to fans of Caleb Carr, Karen Joy Fowler and the ghost stories of Henry James should help this title reach the wide audience it deserves. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A true literary thriller. In New York City at the turn of the 20th century, Piambo is a young artist earning his bread painting "corrective" portraits of plain society wives, beautifying them for the canvas and their husbands. He has a crisis of conscience when one woman, standing under her portrait, leans close and whispers, "I hope you die." As he restlessly wanders the streets that night, a blind man approaches, claiming to know him by his dishonest smell, and offers him the commission of a lifetime: paint a portrait of his employer and receive compensation so grand that he will never have to paint another wife. The catch? Piambo will not be permitted to see Mrs. Charbuque. She will sit behind a screen, and he may ask her questions; from the answers he is to divine her essence. If he captures her likeness, compensation will triple. From this irresistible premise, Ford devilishly spins his story in prose so controlled-yet so dark with underlying fever and inevitability-that it calls to mind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The philosophical and psychological aspects loom large, and Mrs. Charbuque is a near-masterpiece-part sphinx, part hydra, the stuff of the most potent myths. A subplot involving a possible plague adds some hardcore spookiness and, of course, points back to Mrs. Charbuque. This book is smart, spellbinding, and sure to knock any teen's favorite suspense/horror tale from top place to second.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fantasy author Ford (The Beyond, 2001, etc.) turns to a historical setting for this near-miss thriller set in little old New York. An excellent year, 1893, for portraitist Piero Piambo, at least in terms of commissions. Almost without realizing it, he's become a leading painter of plutocratic society. This achievement has its downside, however. "Create, Piero," his teacher/mentor had always enjoined. "Create something beautiful or life is meaningless." But Piero is torn. He enjoys his well-appointed studio, his lovely mistress, his standing in the community, all the delectable fruits of his labor. No labor, no fruits: a bleak cause-and-effect he thoroughly understands. At this point an almost magical opportunity presents itself, a chance to both eat and have his cake. Mega-rich (and very weird) Mrs. Charbruque promises him enough money so that he'll never have to paint another society portrait . . . provided he can paint hers successfully. She tells him this while seated behind an impenetrable screen-a position from which, he learns in the next few minutes, she intends not to stir. Bewildered by the bizarre proposition and irritated by what he regards as its arrogance, Piero nevertheless finds the challenge irresistible. He speedily decides to accept and then very soon wishes he'd given it more thought. There are mysteries attached to his unseen subject (invisible for all he knows) even deeper than at first imagined. What, for instance, is her connection to a series of vicious murders that have begun to terrorize the city? How to explain the sudden appearance of a demented, violent husband she claimed was dead? Difficulties and complexities abound, but Piero surmounts them and in the endcompletes a portrait that in its own way rivals Dorian Gray's. Chillingly surreal with occasional lapses into downright silliness, but by and large Ford keeps the pages turning.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060936174
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/27/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,019,538
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
A Novel

Chapter One

A Nice Bit of Work

Much to my unease, Mrs. Reed positioned herself, all evening, beneath or immediately to either side of her new portrait. She had, for this occasion, worn the same black gown and diamond necklace I had requested she wear when posing for me. Given the situation, comparisons between God's work and my own were unavoidable. I daresay the Almighty's original was found somewhat wanting in the face of my painterly revision. Whereas, in His unquestionable wisdom, He had gone for the grandiose in the formation of her nose and saw fit to leave a prominent gap between the front teeth, I had closed ranks and reduced to beautiful normalcy those aspects of her features that made her her. By using a faint shade of rose and sparing the chiaroscuro, I had added a certain youthful radiance to the tone and elasticity of her flesh, turning back the clock to but a few minutes after that earlier hour when these corresponding changes would have seemed ludicrous.

Perhaps Mrs. Reed was wholly unaware of these discrepancies or, being aware of them, believed that by standing as close to her fairer double as possible she would permanently confuse artifice and reality in the minds of her friends and family. Perhaps she was hoping for some supernatural transmutation between flesh and paint, as was the plot of Wilde's recent novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Whatever the case, she appeared to be beaming with joy. As for the rest of us in attendance, we were all uneasy conspirators in a plot to ignore the truth. Thankfully, her husband had spent a small fortune on goodchampagne for the unveiling and encouraged all to drink freely.

Many of the fifty or so guests felt compelled to approach me and offer praise for my work, which if not for the alcohol would have left my expression a permanent wince.

"Piambo, the rendering of the goldfish in the bowl on the table next to Mrs. Reed is spectacular. I can count the very scales from here."

"The barely wilting nasturtiums in that Chinese vase behind her are so lifelike."

"No one can capture the fold of a gown as you can, and my, how the diamonds sparkle."

I politely thanked them all, knowing that in the coming year I would be doing for some of them precisely what I had done for Mrs. Reed. When I thought I was finally to be left alone, Shenz, my colleague in the fine art of portraiture, sidled up next to me. A short fellow, sporting one of those close-trimmed beards that come to a point, he was well known for an adherence to the tenets of the Pre-Raphaelites and his portraits of the lesser luminaries of the Vanderbilt clan. Hiding his impish grin behind a large cigar, he stared across the spacious parlor at the portrait.

"A nice bit of work, Piambo," he said, and then slightly turned his head and shifted his eyes to look up at me.

"Have some more champagne," I whispered to him, and he quietly laughed.

"Salubrious is the word I would use," he said. "Yes, quite salubrious."

"I'm keeping a running tally," I told him, "as to whether people appreciate the goldfish or the nasturtiums more."

"Put me down for the nose," he said. "A truly ingenious economy of paint."

"I think that was Reed's favorite also. He paid me exorbitantly for this one."

"And well he should," said Shenz. "I think your magic has enchanted his wife into completely forgetting his indiscretion with that young salesgirl from Macy's. Forget about all that new money his ready-made shoe mills have pumped out; only your abilities could have saved his marriage and respectability."

"Lord knows there is much more to it than simply painting," I said. "Who is your next victim?"

"I've picked up a commission just this evening to immortalize the Hatstells' corpulent offspring. A pair of overfed little monsters I am contemplating drugging with laudanum to make them sit still for me." Before departing, he raised his champagne glass and offered a toast. "To art," he said as the rims of fine crystal touched.

After Shenz left me, I took a seat in the corner next to a potted fern and lit my own cigar, sending up a smoke screen behind which I could hide. By then I had had too many glasses of champagne, and my head whirled. The light reflecting off the ornate chandelier hanging in the center of the room, combined with the flash of jewelry bedecking the better halves of New York society's nouveau riche couples, nearly blinded me. Snatches of conversation occasionally leaped out of the oceanic rumblings of the assembled guests, and in a matter of minutes I had heard pieces of discussions concerning everything from the opening of the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago to the latest antics of that nightshirted child who inhabited "Down Hogan's Alley," the World's new cartoon.

In my daze it came to me that I not only wanted but needed to be elsewhere. I realized that of late I had been spending more time in chandeliered parlors, drinking myself to the verge of a stupor, than I did in front of the easel. At that moment the sea of party-goers shifted, my eyes focused, and I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Reed standing now by herself, staring up at her portrait. My view of her was from the back, but I saw her slowly lift one arm and touch her hand to her face. She then turned quickly and walked away. An instant later my view was again obscured by a woman wearing a green silk gown, the color of which reminded me that I was feeling a twinge of nausea. I stubbed out the cigar in the potted fern and then rose unsteadily. Luckily, without having to venture too far into the thick...

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
A Novel
. Copyright © by Jeffrey Ford. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide


This evocative fable, set in 1893 New York society, tells the story of Piero Piambo, a portraitist who is offered a commission unlike any other. His client is Mrs. Charbuque, a wealthy and elusive woman, who asks Piambo to paint her portrait. She has but one proviso: Piambo may question her at length on any topic, but he may not, under any circumstances, see her. So begins an astonishing journey into Mrs. Charbuque's childhood -- a world of ice where she aided her obsessive father in his study of the divine language of snowflakes -- and her history, marked with fame, despair, desire, and rage. Alternately seduced and repulsed by her stories, Piambo remains determined to unravel Mrs. Charbuque's mysteries, and divine her visage.

Discussion Questions

  1. Judging by your own personal set of values, is the portrait work that Piambo is engaged in at the start of the novel (painting the wealthy as they would like to appear) ethical? Is the creation of "true" art still possible in a commission where money changes hands and mandatory stipulations are applied?

  2. Both painting and photography can be used in the production of portraits. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each? Which artistic medium would you choose to be immortalized in? Why?

  3. In the novel, the character of Samantha gives Piambo a list of questions to ask Mrs. Charbuque in order to "capture" the mysterious woman's essence. If you could ask only four questions of someone "behind the screen" (literally or figuratively) in order to quickly get a clear understanding of him or her, what four would they be?

  4. When you read fiction, do yousee the characters in your mind's-eye? If so, they are created by mere words. Why, in this story are Piambo, Shenz, and Samantha, so easy to "see" while Mrs. Charbuque remains enigmatic, even though she reveals so much about herself?

  5. The theme of things being masked, screened, or hidden is pervasive throughout the book. What instances of this have you noticed? How does this theme add to the overall story?

  6. At one point in the story, Piambo recalls his mentor, M. Sabbot, telling him that "Every portrait is, to some extent, a self-portrait, every self-portrait, a portrait." What does the old artist mean by this? What ramifications does this concept have for every day life outside the world of painting?

  7. At least one reviewer posited the idea that The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque could be construed as a feminist novel. Do you agree or disagree with this interpretation?

  8. It comes to light in the course of the story that this same commission has "destroyed" many artists (for instance, Shenz and Sabbot). Why would a task such as this -- depicting a woman one can't see-cause the artists to doubt themselves and their abilities?

  9. Do you believe that Samantha and Piambo will eventually get back together? Why? Why not?

  10. Did you at any time while reading the novel catch a glimpse of the true visage of Mrs. Charbuque? If so, what did she look like? Were her features reminiscent of those of anyone you know? Or was she a distinct individual whose face you have never before seen?

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. He lives with his family in New Jersey.

Author's recommendations for further reading:

The Aspern Papers - Henry James
Grammercy Park: An American Bloomsbury - Carole Klein
Grimm's Fairy Tales
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
What Painting Is - James Elkins

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Customer Reviews

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( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2006


    The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque sounded like an awesome book when I read the back - and it was actually one of the recommended reads by my local B&N people. Unfortunately, the book didn't really live up to the mystery that I thought it would be. It is a good book but it isn't spectacular. The plot seemed a little all over the place - there were too many things going on that really didn't make sense to me. The story had really good parts and it picked up in the end but by that time I was more interested in finishing it because I had already committed time to the book - not because I was interested in the ending itself. Okay but not great...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2003


    An artist named Piambo is commissioned to paint the portrait of a woman he has never seen. He is allowed to ask her any question (she is hidden behind a screen) he likes, about her life, etc. He ends up hearing extraordinary tales of her upbringing, from a father who interprets the language of snowflakes to a life of predicting the future from behind her mysterious screen. Compelling, many threads are woven together at the end- a satisfying read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2002

    Unique and Suspenseful

    Turn-of-the-century atmospherics and an unusual story make this a novel it is easy to recommend. Artist Piero Piambo, a well-known portraitist, is offered a unique commission worth a great deal of money - if he can create an accurate portrait of a woman he is not allowed to see. It is not long after he accepts that his life begins to unravel, at the same time that women who died weeping tears of blood start showing up all over old New York. Is there a connection between Piambo's unseen subject and these bizarre deaths? In a quest to learn the truth, the artist's own life is put in peril. This is one of those rare stories in which a female character is the creepiest one in the book. An absorbing tale!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2002

    What an action packed ending

    What a great read! I have just finsihed reading this book and feel like which there were more. I recommed this book to anyone who is a mystery lover.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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