Like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, the difference between M.J. Rose’s earlier novels and The Witch of Painted Sorrows (Atria) can be measured in degrees of heat.
A writer of substance, Rose can fashion well-written, absorbing mystery thrillers that are full of the supernatural, occult questing and sensually rendered romance, but in her new historical fiction, she seems to have taken eroticism to a level close to soft-core porn. Sandrine Salome, née Verlaine, a wealthy young woman from New York, flees her passionless marriage after her beloved father kills himself, and rumors are that her husband may have caused it. She runs off to live with her Parisian grandmother, a famous and beautiful courtesan, queen of the demimonde, who rules a leading salon called La Lune, named for a Verlainecourtesan ancestor.
It’s the Belle Époque 1890s, and France is in full artistic flower. Although Sandrine worked closely with her father in the art world, she never pursued her own desire to paint. Once in Paris, however, strange feelings emerge. Grand-mère has moved out of La Lune, which is being reconstructed under the direction of the handsome, charming architect, Julian Duplessi; she tells Sandrine never to go there and never to fall in love—the Verlaine women are cursed. With a swiftness that surprises her (and the reader), Sandrine falls under the spell of the old mansion, has ghostly visitations that take possession of her, falls wildly in love with the unavailable Duplessi (he’s engaged!) and develops a surprising talent for painting that propels her to the all-male École des Beaux Arts. In short, timid Sandrine evolves into a fiery woman, adept in matters artistic and sexual. But how much of her new identity is owing to free choice and how much to her tragic 300-year-old red-haired ancestor, La Lune, whose sorrows increasingly determine Sandrine’s erotic subject matter?
Shorter and richer than Fifty Shades of Grey, The Witch of Painted Sorrows engages as a suspenseful tale, though arguably, it drags a bit and the ending may disappoint. Rose, who lived in Sag Harbor for 20 years, is a founding board member of International Thriller Writers and a knowledgeable admirer of 19th century art, especially impressionist and post-impressionist. Indeed, Sandrine’s Beaux Arts mentor is Gustave Moreau, the teacher of Matisse and other art icons. Though it’s anachronistic to say so, Sandrine proves to be a feisty feminist. An oddity to note: critics don’t comment on the fact that Sandrine is Jewish, and that Kabala is much at the coreof the narrative.