Paris Red: A Novel

Image of Paris Red: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 20, 2015
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

It is Paris, 1862, and the novel’s narrator, Victorine, “wears the green boots of a whore.” Sitting outside a shop window and sketching with her friend and roommate Denise, she is approached by a stranger, who draws them into a private game that involves their hearts and passions.

Victorine and Denise work at a silver factory and are poor, sharing a small room and a single bed, and are entertained, at first, by Manet’s attention as he takes them to eat, walks and talks with them, and kisses them. Trying to keep it balanced between the girls, Manet pays equal attention to both, sometimes trying to shock them with his crude or crass suggestions, with his outrageous flirtation, until he begins favoring Victorine.

Manet learns more about the girls than they are at first comfortable with, catching them in real life moments outside the game of their relationship ménage a trois. He waits for them outside of their job, visits their home, and witnesses some of their intimate lives they had not initially shared. It is Victorine who understands Manet’s motivations, and her silence as she watches him and the world around her captivates Manet, who calls her his “silent wife.”

As their game continues, it becomes clear to Victorine than Manet is more than who he claims to be and she begins to pursue him in subtle, and not-so-subtle ways, both in front and away from Denise. He has wealth and notoriety, as well as life experience, though tells very little about himself to either girl until it becomes a necessity. Recognizing he would be trouble between their friendship, Denise begins to pull away—both from Victorine and Manet.

Eventually Victorine physically pursues Manet, breaking the threesome’s bond, and goes to live with him and become his muse and lover, discovering she can leave behind her poverty and be as unconventional as she likes, finding happiness along the way as long as she trusts herself.

Victorine Meurent is the real-life model for some of Manet’s most famous, and scandalous (at the time) work. This work of historical fiction wonderfully weaves in details about Paris, the artist, and his model into a silent but powerful novel. The prose is compact and spare—no word is wasted—yet poetic and captivating.

At the novel’s beginning, author Maureen Gibbon presents the reader with a piece of unburnished silver that is slowly being stripped away of the dirt and grime, and youthful naiveté, to become a truly polished young woman coming into her own, with her own artistic voice and eye, recognizing her own passions and discovering her talents beyond what anyone suggested she was capable.

Though this lovely novel is short, it is not to be gulped in one sitting—rather this is a piece of art, much like Manet’s paintings—it is best drunk slowly with the senses, to be savored and enjoyed to the last drop. The colors are vivid, and a reader should expect nothing less from a gorgeous novel centered on Manet and his muse.