Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon

The model for a famous Manet nude is exquisitely fictionalized as a young woman voracious for experience.

paris red

“That day I am seventeen and I am wearing the boots of a whore.” So begins Maureen Gibbon’s Paris Red, a novel of art, love, sex and survival in 1860s Paris. Victorine, the red-haired narrator, is not a whore herself; the boots were a gift. She works instead as a brunisseuse–silver burnisher–along with her best friend and roommate, Nise. The two sometimes pick up men, though, and this new one, Eugène, is different from the others: he wants them both. Unlike Nise, Victorine pursues experience headlong, wanting to feel it all, and it is she who wins Eugène’s devotion. In the process she puts ambition above friendship, losing Nise, choosing instead a position as Eugène’s model and muse. She purchases oils and pastels for him, poses for sketches and paintings, and luxuriates in the role of his lover.

Paris Red is a sensual, luscious novel, filled with tastes, smells and sounds, as well as colors. Eugène is actually Édouard Manet, strolling the streets under a false name, but Gibbon’s focus here is Victorine, the real historical model for Manet’s Olympia. She finds a home for her passion for color in his studio, and plays model-actor in Eugène’s world, while also learning about–and never losing–herself.

In powerful, vivid prose, Gibbon (Thief) pulls her reader into a sensory Paris that cuts across class lines, painting a strikingly intense and intelligent young woman in Victorine. The overall effect is erotic, but also clever and perceptive, a remarkable glimpse into a moment of art and time. Readers will never view Olympia the same way again.

This review originally ran in the May 8, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 apple fritters.

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