Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an egalley copy of the books to review.
This is the third book from M.J. Rose that I read, and it’s the perfect number to make me realize several patterns in her writing, the characters, details, as well as my own reaction to her book. My first encounter with Rose’s work was in “The Book of Lost Fragrances”, which I loved. The next meeting, which occurred with “The Collector of Dying Breaths”, was much less emphatic and a little shaky. “The Witch of Painted Sorrows” came across as a partial disappointment, as with each book I read by M.J. Rose felt not only a bit too much of a repetition but the characters began to get more frustrating to follow along with.
Sandrine is introduced to us as a young woman who’s running away from her terrible husband to the city of lights – Paris – and her courtesan grandmother, not even suspecting the kind of events that will transpire there. Sandrine is nothing like Jac L’Etoile, the other main protagonist of Rose’s books. She originally comes off as being very nervous, even paranoid to the point where you begin to question her more than sympathize with her. Her “transformation” under La Luna is an entirely different, and very questionable, story. Upon finishing the book I still find it difficult to believe that Sandrine was “possessed”, despite all the details that were thrown in to convince me otherwise, such as the tragic story of La Luna, the ruby necklace and the mystery surrounding it, and the incidents that occur to those she loves. I think I agreed more with her own words when she tells her grandmother later in the book that it’s the city that transformed her rather than the “possession” her grandmother claims.
My verdict on Sandrine is simple: I did not like her. She annoyed me, though not enough to come to the point of dislike or even hate. She was a character who I didn’t understand and felt no sympathy or empathy for. In fact, when near the end of the book she presents the painting ‘Sleeping Cupid’ to the judges and gets criticized for it by almost everyone around, I felt like she deserved it, that she needed to be put in her place. That’s not the kind of reaction I like to have for the main character, especially a protagonist who’s set up in a way that begs for the reader’s empathy. Many of her actions I’d categorize as selfish as they held no other logical explanation for them. For example, she refuses to take off the necklace after her grandmother begs her to, for what feels like the zillionth time. Why? Because it helps her paint better. I roll my eyes at this. Her progress in painting escalates, apparently, due to being possessed by the ghost of La Luna, who herself was a talented painter. But if Sandrine already shows interest in the arts and despite her numerous referrals back to her one and only “crappy” watercolour painting that she’s done, working from one’s own capabilities is far more rewarding than getting any kind of help from the side, be they a spirit or not. This is my own artistic side speaking however, and I know it’s biased. But it simply was infuriating at a certain point to hear her prattling about all these erotic scenes she was envisioning and painting and then seeing herself as a great painter deserving of praise when she’s not doing it honestly. She didn’t even get into the art school fairly, and then when her entrance paintings are later questioned she copies them with her own hand and brings them in as proof. I didn’t buy the whole story that Sandrine was a great artist. She didn’t deserve it, in my opinion. And it was the only thing fuelling her refusal to take off the necklace and get rid of La Luna’s spirit, despite her claims about loving and needing Julien, which felt like a secondary explanation despite her attempts to convince the reader otherwise.
And this dovetails nicely into my next issue with this book: the romance of the main protagonist(s). It wasn’t love, nope. It was a heated, lusty soap opera that at times felt so over-the-top erotic that I wanted to grab the two lovebirds and tell them that I get it, they’re “in love” by their own definition of being in love, and that having sex over and over and over again isn’t necessary to keep emphasizing that point. The only common factor the two shared was they mutual dislike for their partners. For Sandrine we find this out in the beginning since her reason for coming to Paris is to run away from her husband Benjamin. With Julien we only find out near the end (no spoilers!), and his explanation also seems plausible. But otherwise the relationship was lust, not love. It was your standard “oh, they’re protagonists, so they must end up falling in love eventually!” type of romance. Except the word “sensual” is not the right word to describe their relationship – try “erotic”, it fits better.
There isn’t much I can say for the other characters. We don’t see Benjamin until the last 10% or even 5% of the book, and only then he appears very quickly, proves that he is, indeed, an arse, and then “exits” just as quickly. Sandrine’s grandmother was another annoying bit in the whole book. At some point her “yes I was a world-famous courtesan and yes, this is a beautiful city, but you need to get out of her because you’re in danger!” gets very annoying. She never explains herself, which is something I find so ironic in these kinds of characters. If you’re going to be the harbinger of death, destruction, trouble, whatever, at least say what it is! It was difficult to buy into her relationship with Sandrine when the two so easily had succumb to they own “demons” – her grandmother to her fear of La Luna, and Sandrine to the ghost of La Luna – and insulted and hurt each other, both emotionally and physically. We don’t really find out what happens to her, as the ending, as she’s still stuck in some half-mad state in the asylum.
Keeping in mind that this is the first book in a new series by the author, she does a wonderful job at providing a cliffhanger as an entrance for the next book. The only downside – it made me dislike the main character even more. After making the promise to Julien to change the situation, Sandrine instead goes around and at the very last second tells him they will continue on the same path they’re going. The girl is a lost cause, there’s nothing more to say.
So why the 3 stars? The rest. I loved the descriptions of Paris, of the cafes, the details about the rituals, even some of the erotic paintings which Rose describes. I feel I might be a bit too generous with the rating even, considering that the characters occupied such a huge portion of the writing and left me feeling so dissatisfied. But yes. The one thing I did love in this book was the prose part, the descriptions, images. Everything that didn’t include one of the characters in the story I enjoyed. It drew me into the atmosphere of Paris at the end of the 19th century, and at least tried to make up for the blunders that all the remaining components of the story were up to.
I might consider reading the next book. It depends on what I read in the summary – if it sounds promising enough, I’ll pick it up, why not? But I feel my “love affair” with M.J. Rose’s writing is dwindling, and dwindling fast. I wonder, if upon revisiting the first book I read by her, I’ll find myself as frustrated with it. Yet what I can say for sure is that Jac was never as infuriating as Sandrine was in this book.
In short: this book disappointed me. The more I read the more of its magic was lost, and the more I was tempted to label it as an erotic historical fiction, seeing as how that seemed to occupy more than half of the book’s contents, from the descriptions to the characters’ thoughts. And that’s not what I was looking for.