I did not cause the madness, the deaths, or the rest of the tragedies any more than I painted the paintings. I had help, her help. Or perhaps I should say she forced her help on me. And so this story — which began with me fleeing my home in order to escape my husband and might very well end tomorrow, in a duel, in the Bois de Boulogne at dawn — is as much hers as mine. Or in fact more hers than mine. For she is the fountainhead. The fascination. She is La Lune.
Sandrine arrives in Paris late one night, fleeing from her abusive husband in New York. To her dismay, her beloved grandmother no longer lives in the house she loved as a child, and has moved instead to a smarter apartment in another part of the city. Initially, life seems to go on as normal — Sandrine slots into a world of glamourous parties and social events with her famous courtesan grandmother. However, something about the old house keeps calling her back.
Her grandmother seems strangely reluctant to let her visit the house, but on a clandestine visit she meets a talented architect, Julien. Together they discover a hidden room, set out like a studio and filled with paintings made by Sandrine’s ancestor, a sixteenth century courtesan called La Lune. As Sandrine investigates La Lune’s life, it becomes apparent that her spirit has not entirely disappeared. She feels a sudden urge to paint, develops an artistic talent she never knew she had, and by day attends one of Paris’s most prestigious art schools. By night, she explores an entirely new sexual appetite. But La Lune’s presence may not be entirely benign, and gradually those who get in Sandrine’s way fall victim to madness or death. Sandrine must find a way to balance what she wants with what La Lune wants from her, before she is entirely overcome.
The main strength of the book is its setting — shady gaslit streets, bustling cafes where student discuss philosophy and art, the Eiffel Tower, and the hidden world of the occult and the ‘spiritualists’ are all conjured up in gorgeous description. The characters are vividly depicted, in particular, Sandrine’s grandmother, whose descent from renowned courtesan into madness is heartbreaking. And I really enjoyed reading about the art world, the artists and the art movements of the time, which have obviously been thoroughly researched.
The book also tackles some difficult issues around female sexuality — for example, how much of Sandrine’s new-found desire is because of La Lune, and how much is to do with being free from her brutish husband?
If one thing let the story down, it was the plot: it took rather a long time to get going, and it takes ages for Sandrine to figure out the truth of La Lune’s possession of her when the reader has worked it out almost immediately. By contrast, the ending felt rushed and unsatisfactory — but I have since discovered that this is to be the first book in a trilogy which explains the somewhat open ending.
Overall, this was a fun read with elements of magic, romance and erotica, and a beautiful Belle Epoque setting to top it off.
The Witch of Painted Sorrows is out this week.