Paris Red by Maureen Gibbons

Fiction – print. W. W. Norton, 2015. 288 pgs. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

As she stands in front of a shop working on her sketch and wearing her green “whore” boots, seventeen-year-old Victorine Meurent meets a mysterious man who helps her understand how to properly add shadows and, therefore, dimensions to her drawings. The young woman lives and works in the poorer left bank of Paris in 1862, and experience has made her slightly leery of the older man’s intentions.

Yet she introduces him to her roommate and closest friend and is willing to entertain his wish to engage in a threesome with both her and her friend. Eventually, when the jealousy becomes unbearable, Victorine seduces the artist thus ending her friendship and her connection with her family, losing her job at a silver polishing factory, and launching her career as a model for the artist, Édouard Manet, in his infamous portrait “Olympia”.

I have very little familiarity with Manet’s work so I spent much of this fictional tale wondering who Victorine’s mysterious artist might be. (I only skimmed the summary of the novel on the jacket cover). Certainly, the mystery kept me reading to the end, but I think not really knowing who the artist might be allows the focus to remain upon Victorine. This is her story, her transition from a woman who wears whore boots (a fact she repeats over and over) to becoming a woman whose position as muse makes many think she is a whore.

For all her naiveté, Victorine has seen the downside to the arrangement she is considering and possesses a kind of plucky, self-assurance that is hard not to admire. She longs to escape the life of a poorly paid factory worker, and she seemed to have tried as many avenues as open to her. A threesome may not be something the reader might consider, but becoming a mistress was an avenue out of poverty and Victorine refuses to feel shame about taking advantage of such an opportunity. Gibbons’ fictional Victorine certainly made me want to learn about the real Victorine. (Manet, for his part, comes across as a lecher.)

I did see on review that refers to this novel as “historical fiction erotica”, which is a pretty apt description. Much of Victorine and Manet’s interactions are sexual in nature, and the story did not fill in the gaps of what is known about their relationship in the way other novels focused on particular paintings have. I went in expecting the book to do this and was disappointed to find the novel lacked the descriptive prose about the painting featured on the cover I expected and the way the novel ends with the painting’s completion rather than its first public viewing.

On the later point, I don’t think ignoring the vitriol reaction to the painting can be excused as not a part of Victorine’s story – certainly, being called a whore with her image spat upon would affect Victorine. On the former point, I can excuse this because the descriptions of poverty in 1862 Paris more than made up for it. Even if I couldn’t immediately imagine the painting, I could imagine the setting with near perfect clarity in my head.

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