Monday, January 6, 2014
I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto
Published February 2003 by Scribner
Source: my own audio and print copies
Narrator: Lorna Raver
The life of Virginie Gautreau, the notorious beauty of Madame X, John Singer Sargent's most famous and scandalous portrait, provides inspiration for this absorbing and intriguing novel. In this novel, Gioia Diliberto tells Virginie's story, drawing on the sketchy facts of Virginie's life to re-create her tempestuous personality and the captivating milieu of nineteenth-century Paris.
Born in New Orleans to two of Louisiana's prominent Creole families and raised at Parlange, her grandmother's lush plantation. Virginie fled to France with her mother and sister during the Civil War. The family settled in Paris among other expatriate Southerners and hoped, through their French ancestry, to insinuate themselves into high society. They soon were absorbed into the fascinating and wealthy world of grand ballrooms, dressmakers' salons, luxurious country estates, and artists' ateliers. Because of Virginie's striking appearance and vivid character, her mother pinned the family's hopes for social acceptance on her daughter, who became a "professional beauty" and married a French banker.
Even before Sargent painted her portrait, Virginie's reputation for promiscuity and showy self-display made her the subject of vicious Paris gossip." I Am Madame X is a compulsively readable immersion in Belle Epoque Paris. It is also the story of a great work of art, illuminating the struggle between Virginie and Sargent as they fought to control the outcome of a painting that changed their lives and affected the course of art history.
Diliberto is a biographer who became entranced by the woman known to the world as Madame X. She almost certainly thought to write the biography of a woman who had inspired Sargent to paint a portrait which would almost ruin his reputation when it was first shown. Lacking enough detail for a biography, Dilioberto instead crafted a novel based on what she did know about Virginie, Sargent, and Paris and Louisiana in the late 19th century.
The result was a novel that was uneven for me. Other reviewers have called Dilioberto's effort "competent" and "credible." The problem is that the story could have been so much more. Dilioberto does a fine job bringing both Creole and Parisian society life alive, filling her story with the kind of details that paint pictures in readers' minds. It is in her characters that Dilioberto falters.
In Virginie, Dilioberto has created a woman scarred by early loss and shaped by her mother's insistence that their very existence rests entirely on Virginie's looks. I should have cared about a girl who lost her beloved father and sister, whose mother cared so little about her that she allowed her to quite school because she just couldn't be bothered. Early on I did care. But the older Virginie got, the vainer she became and the less Dilioberto worked to make readers see her softer side. Most of the other characters are not fully developed and their purpose and motivation are not always clear.
Still, it was an interesting book as much for its historical setting and the art and music that play such big parts in it, as for Virginie's story. My enjoyment of it was vastly enhanced by Raver's narration. Virginie's story is told from her perspective as an older woman and Raver's voice is perfect for that; she adds to the emotion of the book, particularly its humor.