by Christopher Moore
The death of Vincent Van Gogh ripples through the Paris art community, leaving his friends in shock. Why would he shoot himself in the middle of a cornfield and then drag himself over a mile back to a doctor’s house? It’s a mystery to Lucien Lessard, a baker in Monmartre. When he isn’t preparing bread or enduring the abuse of his loving but cantankerous mother, Lucien is painting or discussing art with his friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. But on the heels of the announcement of Van Gogh’s suicide, more trouble rains down on the baker in the form of the beautiful Juliette, his long lost love who has lately returned to Paris. She wants him to paint her once more, using a special blue paint. It is the same color known as the sacré bleu – sacred blue – a rare, expensive pigment that can only be gotten from the mysterious Colorman, an ugly little figure who seems to be connected all the painters in Paris. As Lucien loses himself on his canvas, Henri investigates the Colorman, and discovers that the man’s paints are somehow causing artists to lose large chunks of time from their memory. How is the Colorman doing this, and what is his connection to Juliette? Henri begins to fear for Lucien’s life, but he and Lucien are determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, even if they have to enlist the help of every other painter in Monmartre to do it.
As anyone who has been reading this blog knows, Christopher Moore is one of my favorite authors, and I have been waiting for this book for ages because Moore combined with art history can produce only the most delightful insanity! When I saw the book, I was even more excited, because not only is the cover art beautiful (and printed directly onto the hardcover instead of on a dustjacket – nice!) but as we meet the Impressionist artists, Moore has inserted color prints of their work so that even if you know nothing about Monet or Seurat or art or painting, the images will show what the artists are talking about. I believe the color art will only be in the hardcover edition; subsequent reprints and the paperback will have black and white reproductions instead.
The other thing I noticed was that the text itself, instead of being the standard black, is a dark blue color. The first line of the book tells readers that this is a story about the color blue, so the unusual color is certainly fitting. But it’s also a little distracting for the first several chapters, until you get used to the idea. How strange – reading multi-colored text on a computer screen is normal and fine; throw it onto a print page and it’s disorienting.
The characters in Sacre Bleu are wonderful. While I wasn’t crazy about the romantic leads, Lucien and Juliette – Lucien’s a bit too wishy-washy, which I blame on being raised by a domineering mother, while Juliette’s unpredictable personality makes me think she’s inhaled a few too many paint fumes over the years – I loved many of the side characters. Madame Lessard is a terror, scaring her son and grown men alike, but behind her sharp tongue is a loving woman and protective mother…complete with razor claws and a thirst for violence. It happens. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is the shining star of the book, but he’s nothing like the moody, depressed artist in a drunken stupor that likes to show up in popular culture. Yes, this Henri is a lush – and boy, is he ever– but he’s also peppy, enthusiastic and absolutely in love with life. He gets all the best lines, if not all the best girls.
This is a surreal blend of fantasy and history. I loved it. Unlike many of Moore’s historical books, like Lamb or Fool, we actually know quite a bit about the personalities of these painters, thanks to surviving letters and accounts written by their contemporaries. As best as I can recall, Moore captures the friendships and rivalries between them pretty accurately to how they got along in life. Camille Pissarro is a father figure beloved by the younger artists of the Post-Impressionism movement, while Edgar Degas is, quite frankly, a jerk. It’s a lot of fun to watch them interact in increasingly wacky situations.
I wonder how many people will pick this up because they think it’s a more serious work. My mom was curious about it because she is obsessed with 19th century Paris and the Impressionists, but after finishing the book she complained, “It’s a little silly and unrealistic.” (I did try to warn her!) But I thought it was great – funny, full of art and joie de vivre and an absolute must read for Moore’s fans.
5 out of 5 stars
To read more about Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.