As a premise for a story, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, by Jeffrey Ford, is fascinating. Piambo, a painter, talented but blasé, receives a commission that would solve his worries about money and leave him free to find his painter's soul again. There's only one condition: he must not look upon his subject, and paint her portrait from the stories she tells him. If he looks at her, he will be killed.
As Mrs. Charbuque unfolds her story, each tale more fantastic than the previous one, Piambo becomes obsessed with depicting her image perfectly. Meanwhile, women are dying, bleeding to death from their eyes, and Piambo begins to suspect that there is a link between his subject and these deaths.
Jeffrey Ford's depiction of 19th Century New York is vivid and typically American in vision. None here is the vague disdain bestowed by the European on the New World; Ford gives a refreshing tone to the setting.
I found, however, the rythm of the prose choppy, and the ending of the story disappointing. The denouement left me unsatisfied and forlorn. After all this time spent in Piambo's company, the last chapters fizzle out. The explanation of the deaths --which are indeed murders-- is somewhat weak, and some of the characters are abandoned mid-story.
Even with a great premise and setting, I found this book a disappointing read.