In The Witch of Painted Sorrow by M.J. Rose, the reader is drawn into the cultural world of 1890’s Belle Époque Paris filled with the romance of the sight, sounds, and language inherent to this time and place. Sandrine Salome has fled her self centered husband in New York City who has driven her beloved father to suicide through his embezzlement from the bank they jointly managed. Sandrine turns to the only place of refuge open to her, the home of her grandmother, Eva Verlaine also known as L’Incendie or The Fire, a celebrated courtesan living at Maison de la Lune. To her horror, the lavish house is dark and devoid of human life. Luckily a neighbor brings her to her grand-mere’s new location, a short distance away. While Sandrine is led to believe that the mansion is closed for renovations, the elegant house is really being inventoried and readied to become the Museum of the Grand Horizontals. Although Eva loves Sandrine, she is horrified at the turn of events and encourages her grand-daughter to return home to her husband Benjamin. Sandrine has no intention of returning to a loveless marriage and feels drawn to her ancestral home where she spends more and more of her time, especially when she discovers the charismatic, handsome curator and architect, Julien, who is inventorying the vast collection of artifacts. Sandrine fears she is as frigid as her husband claims, but discovers she does have a passionate side, both in love and in art. This must have been an inherited talent passed on through the generations, unless it is as her grandmother fears, a ghostly interference by La Lune who is capable of invading the soul of the women in the Verlaine family. Grandmother warns, “For the women in our family, love is a curse, not a blessing.” La Lune feeds on strong emotions, especially the erotic, but Sandrine throws caution to the wind, enjoying her new found freedom as a woman. Her life centers around being an artist and a lover as she immerses herself into the Parisian culture of the bohemian crowd.
M.J. Rose weaves an intricate tale. Her detailed back drop makes Paris comes alive and we don’t blame Sandrine for wanting to take advantage of the opportunities, even if her normally timid personality is overcome by an invading spirit. Of course, La Lune does more than direct Sandrine’s life. Tragedy also paves the way for the ever selfish diva to burrow deeper into her host’s soul. The loving grandmother must be punished for her interference. Others as well feel the results of La Lune’s wrath.
As in all Gothic novels, at times you must suspend your belief and accept the surreal. So, while the story seems a bit far fetched, despite the supernatural theme, it is still an enjoyable read (just don’t look too closely at all the details). Even though there is quite a bit of action within the story, a lot of the narrative consists of Sandrine’s introspection as her desires are awoken. She fears her grandmother is right about the danger of becoming possessed and wonders if her new behaviors come from within or is she reflecting the nature of La Lune. Yet, Sandrine is enjoying life too much to want this experience to stop. My main criticism is that too much time is spent on these repetitive thoughts. I would have liked to have seen more action or a better development of the plot and minor characters. Also, the author tends to go to extremes where the tragedies are just a little too tragic. The husband is made out to be a bigger villain than he really is – not abusive, just an inconsiderate lover. While he brought dishonor through his actions to her father, was he truly a murderer? Then again, when evil is in the heart, who knows how it will be expressed. While Sandrine’s initial reactions to Benjamin seem to be misplaced (as if her life were in danger), perhaps it was her newly discovered personal freedom which she wanted to keep from his grasp. The mores of the times are forever in the background, where women had limited rights in a male dominated world. This puts Sandrine’s outrageous behaviors into greater perspective. Since this is the first of a series, the ending, by necessity, had to be open ended enough for the sequel, but I felt the conclusion was satisfying.
My advice is to read at least the first hundred pages or so before judging the book. Once the stage is set, the pace picks up as Sandrine explores her expanding universe, including Parisian Night Life and the occult, as she sets out to break down barriers. Three and a half stars.
A thank you to Atria and Netgalley for allowing me to read a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.