The Painted Lady
by Lucia Grahame, historical (1993)
Bantam, $4.99, ISBN 0-553-29864-X


If you have a really long afternoon and you want a challenge, I dare you to pit your willpower against Lucia Grahame's very difficult The Painted Lady. If Judith Ivory and Linda Francis Lee get amalgamated in some secret lab, the result will be something like Lucia Grahame's very difficult but ultimately haunting book. I find it simultaneously manipulative, obnoxious, heartbreaking, lovely, chilling, and wallbanger all at once. I really don't know what to make of it. Every rereading creates a different reaction in me, it's like having seated on a bed of burning red hot nails.

Written in first person, this is the story of Fleur Brooks, a very beautiful woman who has never gotten over her husband's death and her miscarriage. Anthony Camwell believes that he is marrying a beautiful woman of life and vigor, but learns too late that Fleur is too self-absorbed in her depression that she will never accept him. He begins weaving his own plans of revenge, and the final train wreck of a result can only be these two morons humiliating each other and themselves so badly before making up in the most beautiful of ways.

That's basically the story. Both characters here are far from your usual "moral" sorts. If you're the kind of reader who insists on measuring your characters with a rigid ruler of morality, I don't know how you will deal with this one. Fleur marries Anthony to extricate herself from blackmail, and Anthony's revenge is so nasty that I doubt any woman deserves his cruelty. But at the same time, I won't wish Fleur on any man either - that woman is pretty much an embryo living in the amniotic sac of her depression and she is so cold that I actually would have pitied Anthony were he not just as bad. In the end, these are two clowns living at the turn of 19th century Europe who could really use a long, quiet stay at some hospice with pretty gardens and prettier butterflies.

Yet at the same time, the author reels me into her prose that it is also difficult to dismiss Fleur outright as a moron. Fleur takes self-absorption to an art form, but her pain and despair are also palpable and cathartic at the same time. Poor Anthony, as a result, he is the villain as much as the hero of this story. But Fleur has treated him very badly so his own treatment of her can be seen as tit-for-tat.

I cry, I scream in rage, I pound my fists on this book, and I weep away into reels of Kleenex all throughout this book. Ms Grahame plays me like a violin, I'm ashamed to admit, and she has me biting her bait when she creates that disgustingly manipulative happy ending. I don't buy the happy ending one bit, to be honest, but heck, in that moment, I'm just so happy those two twits finally make up.

The edition I'm reading compares Ms Grahame to Susan Johnson. Sure, the sex scenes are hot, but they are hot because of the stark contrast between Anthony's explicit actions and Fleur's coldness that is her refusal to respond. But Ms Grahame to Ms Johnson is like apples to oranges. I don't think Susan Johnson's characters ever delight in flaying themselves bloody with their own angst that will make even the characters in a Linda Francis Lee novel cry for their momma like the sissies they are.

But in the end, I'm just too wrung out to enjoy this book. It's like watching the neighbors fight, scream, yell, and shriek at each other all night long. Yes, it's nice that they make up and all, but can they please move to another neighborhood, preferably to another continent away from me?

Rating: 78


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