Victorine Laurent, the title character in Debra Finerman's debut novel Mademoiselle Victorine, is a gorgeous young ingénue who, armed only with her ambition, manipulative feminine wiles, and perky boobs, rises from obscurity to the height of success in a world-class city, only to be brought low by a scandal created by jealous rivals before rising back up again, determined never to give up.
Two other characters spring to mind that fit this description - Kathleen Windsor's Amber St. Clair in Forever Amber, and the ne plus ultra of literature's scheming females, Scarlett O'Hara. It's perhaps unfair to compare Victorine to a literary icon like Scarlett, but when the parallels are so similar, it can't be helped.
Mademoiselle Victorine bears a bit more resemblance to Forever Amber than it does to Gone With the Wind. Both Windsor and Finerman had a strong desire to paint an accurate picture of a particular time and place, Amber in 17th century England, Victorine in the art world of 19th century Paris. And both novels paint an incredibly vivid picture, with Victorine coming off a bit heavy-handed at first. In addition to countless references to cafés and Salons, it was like somebody had a yard sale in Finerman's neighborhood, where they were selling accent aigus for a nickel a bag. Not to mention Victorine floats through the entire novel bumping up against every single historical French figure of the 19th century - Monet, Manet, Cézanne, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Pasteur - they were all there, seen mingling at a cocktail party or sitting one table over at a restaurant. Victorine was like Forest Gump without the military service.
This novel takes place in Paris. Paris, France. Do not forget it. The orphan Victorine is spotted by artist Edouard Manet as she performs as a Junior Ballerina at the Paris Opera and becomes his muse, scandalously posing naked in many of his portraits. She becomes a pop culture sensation; a 19th century Kate Moss whose antics and romantic hookups rival her nude portraits for gossip fodder. She then spends the novel trading up sugar daddies until she meets total dickhead Duke Phillipe de Lyon, the power behind the throne of Louis-Napoléon. I'd call him a 19th-century Karl Rove if I didn't think the thought of him being portrayed in a sexual context would nauseate you. Everybody warns her that he's completely evil, but she thinks she can get a big house and really cool wheels out of him, so off she goes. He turns out to be more evil than expected, and Victorine is faced with total disaster.
And here comes the major difference between Victorine and Scarlett O'Hara. Rather than relying on the kindness of men who, with the exception of Victorine's gay boyfriend André, just aren't that helpful, Scarlett comes up with ideas beyond offering up sex to powerful men (although she's not above it, i.e. the green velvet curtain scene) and makes her own luck.
Unfortunately, Victorine is not Scarlett. When the chips were down, the Southern beauty not only saved herself, but saved every man and woman around her that she loved. And she even saved some people she didn't love. And she would stop at nothing to fight for herself and her family. I mean, she shot a Yankee point blank in the face for stealing her mother's little rosewood sewing box. Then she stole his wallet and buried him in a shallow grave in the backyard. Scarlett is totally, totally awesome.
Like Scarlett, Victorine despises and distrusts other women, in spite of the fact that her biggest betrayers are men who have stripped her of all legal rights and freedoms and forced her into a narrow range of miserable choices. They both have one female frenemy, Victorine's Julia Stanhope-Morgan, and Scarlett's Melanie Wilkes, and they're both bound up in the same drama - both Julia and Melanie get the man the protagonist wants for herself.
There's quite a difference in sidekicks, too. While Julia is, like Melanie, a good, honest, kind woman, it's Melanie who appears at the top of the stairs after hearing the gunshot, gazes down at the dead Yankee, smoke rising from the destroyed ruin of what was once his face, looks at Scarlett leaning up against the wall, gray-faced and holding the pistol, and says, "We'll both take a leg and drag him outside."
See, that's the kind of friend you want.
Julia Stanhope-Morgan, due to her constant activity, is hands-down the more interesting female character. She follows her passion halfway around the world and makes her own fortune. Based on the life of artist Mary Cassat, Julia leaves Boston, defying her family's direct orders, and comes to Paris to seek out Edouard Manet to beg him to take her on as his protégée.
In one scene, Victorine spies on Manet and Stanhope-Morgan at work.
Edouard indicated for Julia to move aside and took a seat on her stool. He dipped a rag in linseed oil, then smeared it across one section of the canvas to erase the paint. "Stop!" She jerked the cloth out of his hand. "You'll ruin it!"
"Too much ego, not enough humility," he said.
Julia crossed the room and dropped onto the divan. She said that she had never hated anyone as much as she despised him.
Then they make up and she makes a pass at him.
Plus, Julia volunteers at an insane asylum! Why didn't we get to read more about that? 19th-century loony bin? Come on! That's got to be good. This is, to me, just a more interesting story than sleeping your way to the top. The sidekick should never be more interesting than the main character. Melanie Wilkes may know where the bodies are buried, but it was Scarlett that pulled the trigger.
After all this criticism, it appears that I didn't like the book. And I guess I didn't. I've given better reviews to worse books, so what gives? It seems historically accurate, it's quite readable, it has enough sex and violence to keep things rolling along. I really don't understand my final reaction to the book. I think it's because I didn't care for any of the characters. Victorine herself was extremely inaccessible and frankly not very likeable, the men were jerks, and Julia and André, the most amiable characters, weren't fleshed out enough to carry the novel.
I can easily believe that another reader may not have the issues with it that I did at all. Mademoiselle Victorine is a novel that can be fiercely loved; I can see that. It may also be that my expectations may have been too high, because, like Finerman, I love the art that was happening all over 19th century Paris.
There's a painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day, and I can stare at it for hours. It seems like if I just watch it long enough, I'll be able to fall into it and it will start to move. The couple in the foreground will sweep past me, and I'll be able to feel the patter of rain on my arms and hear the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones. As much as I would have liked it to, Mademoiselle Victorine never let me come close enough to it to fall inside.
by Debra Finerman
July, 2007 by Three Rivers Press