How can a painter create a portrait of a model he never actually sees? That question is at the center of Jeffrey Ford's fascinating new novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. Set like Caleb Carr's The Alienist in 1890s New York, Ford's book is a masterpiece of suspense. But unlike The Alienist, which used actual historical characters, The Portrait relies for the most part on the author's imagination. And what an imagination it is! Ford has honed his creative voice in a rich outpouring of short stories and novels, including the unique allegorical trilogy, The Physiognomy, Memoranda and The Beyond. The first book in the trilogy won the 1998 World Fantasy Award.
Ford's latest novel takes place in the top tiers of New York society in 1893. Piero Piambo, an artist slumming as a portraitist, is hoping to make enough money to allow him to paint what he wants although he's not at all sure what that might be. The Portrait kicks into gear when Piambo is given a mysterious and high-paying commission: to paint the eponymous Mrs. Charbuque. The job has one difficult condition, however; he must paint her without ever seeing her. Piambo cannot resist the challenge and is soon attempting to paint Mrs. Charbuque (who sits in the same room with him, but behind a curtain) while listening to her strange tales. As Piambo becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind Mrs. Charbuque and her increasingly strange and frightening stories, he lets own life, his friends and his lover, Samantha, a beautiful actress, slip out of his hands. Painting an unseen subject is a captivating idea that sprang from Ford's own experience as a reader. I see the characters of a novel in my mind, he said in a recent interview. They take on features, hair color and expressions, and bulk and height, becoming real individuals. When Piambo tries to see Mrs. Charbuque in his mind, the image keeps changing. I want the reader to have the same experience as Piambo is having as he tries to decipher her looks form her words, Ford says.
The author faced another challenge in creating the novel: how could he convey a painter at work or the beauty of a painting so that it would feel real to the reader? To solve this dilemma, Ford interviewed painters and read up on the subject particularly in James Elkin's insightful book, What Painting Is. He also used his own experience as a painter in the Henry Miller school of paint what you like and die happy.' One aspect of writing the novel came easily to Ford the setting. A New York-area native with a long-standing interest in local history, he grew up on Long Island and as a child was often taken into Manhattan. He later worked in the city, and he and his family now live within easy reach of New York in South Jersey, where he teaches English at Brookdale Community College. Despite his local background, Ford spent considerable time researching the New York of 1893. He discovered just how much difference 109 years makes: coffee cost less than a penny; an all-naked review in the name of high art was popular (although it didn't last long); and many of the buildings of the period are long gone. However, not everything he discovered made it into the book; otherwise he'd never have finished. As his editor pointed out, a little research goes a long way.
Although he made his name as a fantasy author, in The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, Ford handles the mystery genre with apparent ease, building suspense right from the start when Piambo is handed a note by a blind man. Ford says his primary goal in writing the novel was to see how far his character would go to successfully paint his unseen subject. As Piambo is drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery behind the curtain, the novel moves from one climax to the next, slowly and skillfully increasing the tension so that as the ending nears, the reader, like Piambo who lives for the stories and will do almost anything to find out more about Mrs Charbuque has to know what happens. Gavin J. Grant lives in Brooklyn with the usual overload of books.