Review: Paris Red, by Maureen Gibbon
Norton, 2015. 282 pp. $26
In a Paris still reeling from the recent war of 1870, two young women, teenagers still, share a tiny apartment and work as silver burnishers. It’s a demanding job but steady work, and Louise and Denise (called Nise) count themselves lucky to have each other’s friendship and a sound alternative to working the streets, however meager their wages. But they also dream of more, of being noticed, picked out from among the crowd.
One day, they pose before a shopwindow, holding drawing tablets, pretending to sketch what’s inside. A man approaches them, and a triangular flirtation begins. At first, Louise and Nise are careful not to push themselves forward, each concerned with not hurting the other; besides, they must at least pretend to play hard to get. But beneath the teasing, Louise senses a strong attraction between herself and the man, who calls himself Eugène, who has some money, has apparently seen the hard side of life, and who sometimes speaks with disarming, if not shocking, directness.
It all happens so easily, it seems, and yet Louise is the type to reflect on why, which is why I like this book:
It is about us. Something specifically about us. And I think we should not be surprised. It is what we wanted. With our tablets and our scheming, all the trying not to be ordinary–didn’t we want someone to notice us? To see we were different? . . . Because I do not feel ordinary. Or because I feel ordinary and different at the same time.
His name, as she finds out, is really Édouard Manet. Louise Victorine Meurent becomes his mistress, his model, and, to some extent, his muse. I didn’t recognize her name, but I certainly knew what she looked like, because she’s in two of my favorite Manet canvases, Olympe (on the book jacket) and Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass). Both created a stir for their frank sensuality and shocking directness. Having dug around a little, I also learn that Meurent became a painter too. Unlike what the novel suggests, she gravitated toward an older, more accepted style than his, which, ironically, earned her more favor than he from the official Salon.
Gibbon has imagined the artist-model relationship in fine emotional detail. I particularly like how she traces the currents that run between them, which don’t always follow the expected route. For one thing, Manet isn’t the absinthe-sodden, self-absorbed, irresponsible artist of lore, which allows him to appreciate Louise for herself, not just as an object. He’s always willing to listen to her, something that takes her by surprise. Just as important, as with the shopwindow scene, you can’t necessarily pinpoint who’s seducing whom, or what it’s for. As Louise observes, “It is not always so clear what someone wants, or what money can buy, or who exactly pays.” Without saying too much, I can tell you that between these two people, it’s more about art than sex, though there’s plenty of both.
The beginning feels a little romanticized, like a sepia photograph that’s been airbrushed. The Paris of Paris Red isn’t nearly as seamy as that of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s Painted Girls, and Louise, though she stints herself at times, seems relatively safe. The key word is relatively, however, because just as Louise has abandoned Nise, which troubles her (somewhat), she worries that Manet will abandon her. She may not starve or have to go on the street, for she has a skilled trade to fall back on. But she will lose her dreams and the connection to Manet on which they depend. As she says, money figures into it, but it’s not everything.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.