I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I’ll be brief. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, there was so much book-related work that I all but stopped reading for pleasure. I read maybe four or five books a year for the fun of it, but the rest were all business. This continued into my years as a graduate student and it took a long while for my joy in reading to return.
Before academic study was my reason to read, I enjoyed a wide variety of books. From the “classics” to Anne McCaffrey, I read whatever my fingers lit on first. Unless something was very, very boring I was usually entertained and enjoyed my experience. I’ll not go into it here, but graduate school changed this. When I finally began to read again, I only wanted to escape and YA fantasy was my top choice. After all, there is a lot of wonderful stuff going on in that niche of the book industry. I got lost in that corner for a while, but I find myself wandering out more frequently these days and of that I am glad.
I am still drawn to an escape and for me that means magic or distant worlds, but I find myself drawn to more adult texts as of late and M.J. Rose’s The Witch of Painted Sorrows, is certainly one such book. Set in lush, Belle Époque Paris the book is a dark and sensual trip far, far away from normal. The book’s protagonist, Sandrine is a New York socialite who has fled an abusive husband. She seeks shelter in Paris with her grandmother, a famous courtesan, but when she arrives, she finds her ancestral home empty.
When Sandrine reunites with her grandmother, she is secretive about why they cannot live in the home the Verlaine women (all courtesans) have occupied for centuries. Sandrine, inexplicably drawn to the enigmatic Maison de la Lune, visits the house behind her grandmother’s back and is drawn into a much deeper mystery. There she meets Julien Duplessi, a gorgeous young architect her grandmother hired to renovate the house. Together, they stumble upon the locked sanctuary of the mansion’s namesake, La Lune.
Sandrine is quickly caught up in a whirlwind of dark sensuality. She goes from being a timid young woman to a bold and sensual artist within a matter of weeks. As her relationship to Julien deepens, her propensity for lying and deceit intensifies. The result is both terrifying and dazzling. Sandrine cannot account for the changes in her character, or perhaps she doesn’t want to. When her grandmother warns her of a family curse, Sandrine shuts her ears and denies the ways in which it most certainly applies to her.
This is the wonder of the novel for me. I never got tired of Sandrine denying what was actually happening to her. It’s clear to us, as readers, from the first moment that La Lune’s story is introduced what will happen… what is happening. This is the kind of thing that bothers me sometimes. It’s easy to get frustrated with a character who is willfully overlooking something that is incredibly easy to see and understand. Even in situations, such as this one, where the thing the character denies is something occult and fantastical, I tend to get irritated.
In this case though, Sandrine does know, but she wants what is happening to her to happen so she denies the potentially insidious nature of the forces taking her over. The magic of the book is that I found myself wanting it too. I wanted her to succumb to the darkness suffusing her being because it was helping her. Sandrine steps out of her shell as a timid woman, running from a despicable man and grabs hold of the power offered her. She breaks barriers, has a lot of really sexy sex and has almost no care for what anyone thinks of her. When Julien and her grandmother both want her to renounce this change, I begged silently for her not to give it up. I thought until the last page that I knew how this would end, but I was wrong.
Now, let’s stop dancing around plot particulars and talk about if this book is right for you. Recently, I watched the entire first season of Penny Dreadful in a week. I was disturbed, because it is a disturbing show, but also deeply entranced by Eva Green’s ability to be at once darkly beautiful and absolutely horrific. There is something of that here, though The Witch of Painted Sorrows has a far more polished veneer, while Penny Dreadful tends towards gritty. The book is a mix of Eva Green’s brand of horrifying gorgeousness and the opulence of Moulin Rouge, with a touch of The Picture of Dorian Gray and a hefty dose of heady sensuality.
If you think any of this seems even remotely interesting, I think you won’t be disappointed. For me it was a wonderful mix of occult mystery, romance novel and historical fiction. It was just what I needed coming out of one of the most awful book slumps I’ve been in since the dark days of graduate school: engaging, intelligent, surprising and above all else a fantastic escape from the malaise one encounters whilst teaching summer school.
Allison Carr Waechter will be teaching summer school until August and until then you can expect her to be tweeting relentlessly about books and Pretty Little Liars, which are her refuge in a summer storm.