Sunday, April 22, 2012
Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This one was a little bit strange, but not in Moore's usual way, or not in the way that I'm used to anyway. It was a much more serious book than I've read from him before, somewhat witty, but not especially funny, but it was very interesting and often quite lovely, so that was new too.
My first impression was fantastic, what a gorgeous book this is. The cover is just stunning and really represents the story well. The book is printed in two shades of blue ink, which really sets a nice tone for a book about art using the color blue. Two different fonts were used to set the tone, a more old-fashioned serif font for the main sections, and a stark san-serif for the interludes. And then after I turned a few pages I got a great surprise, a full color print, a self-portrait of Van Gogh. And as I kept turning the pages more and more prints appeared every few pages to illustrate the story. After I finished the book I flipped through and counted and I think there were approximately thirty-two impressionist and post-impressionist paintings included in this book, pretty impressive. Most books don't even have a handful of black and white sketches, or decent covers these days, much less more than thirty major works of art used to illustrate the story. So it was definitely worth the money from the standpoint of being a lovely product. I would definitely recommend that if you don't buy or borrow the hardback, you will want to read it on a color ebook reader; as much as I love my original nook, it would be a shame to read this one in black and white, the images really illustrate the story and add a lot of value to the book.
As for the story, it started out quite slow. It wasn't funny or quirky at all at the beginning and it didn't even feel like any kind of a fantasy for quite a long time. It felt like a mystery, and there were hints of something odd going on with the Colorman, but it took quite a long time for it to develop into anything mystical. And it never really developed into funny for me, or not laugh-out-loud funny. And the slow pace continued throughout, as did the lack of laughs. I think it was just a different style of book than his lighthearted, silly somewhat farcical stories à la the Love Story trilogy or Practical Demonkeeping. I haven't read Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal or Fool yet, but perhaps it's more in line with their sensibility. It's certainly a more mature novel than Bite Me or A Dirty Job. It's just a very different kind of book. There were chuckles, and it certainly wasn't overly serious, there were a lot of lighter moments, but it just more wry than funny to me, mildly amusing most of the time at best.
The book reminded me of the historical fiction I grew up reading, like Désirée and Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess, except in this one Lucien, Bleu and the Colorman aren't real. But almost everyone else in the book is, that part is really fun. It could have come off like some of the urban fantasy novels I've read that make me nuts when the author throws in every historical figure that she's ever fantasized about and it just gets absurd; yeah sure that many famous people throughout history just happened to get turned into vampires or whatever her theme is and somehow they all ended up crossing paths with her unimportant lead character; my willing-suspense-of-disbelief gets stretched too far. But having all of these painters interact in this book works because these guys really did hang out together. Maybe not exactly the way it's portrayed here, maybe they didn't have these specific conversations, these identical relationships, senses of humor, etc., but some of the older masters did teach the younger painters, they did have relationships and interact, so it's plausible to some degree. And Moore did write the painters' characters based upon what is known about their personalities. In fact, I thought he did a better job with the actual historical painters than with the characters he created in this one. They were much more vividly portrayed than the other characters.
My biggest problem with this book wasn't with the slow pacing, which although it wasn't a huge page-turner, I was never bored either, or with the lack of huge laughs, because again, I was never bored. It was with the characterization of the main characters of Lucien, Bleu and the Colorman. The were all, well, not to be too trite in a review about a book about painting, but they were really flat. Usually Moore's characters are so vivid and 3D. But Lucian was nothing more than a sketch in my mind. Bleu and the Colorman were seemed more like caricatures than real characters, ticking off the points of what we expect to see but not filing in the details to make real complex characters. I really liked the concept of what it turned out was going on with Bleu, it was a really good use of mythology, but the explanation of how it all came about was really weak too. And how it played out was disappointing, quite a let-down.
I think maybe Moore was more in love with telling his story about the painters, of figuring out a way to tell a story about why in the world Vincent Van Gogh would shoot himself in the chest and then walk a mile to the doctor afterwards, and he came up with a vision that he wanted to explore but he just didn't have a strong enough back story to support it, but decided to go with it anyway because the one idea was so cool. So we get this. Overall was lovely, charming, amusing, interesting, I was never bored, but it wasn't funny or a page-turner either.
(Also, and not related to the story at all, the quote from The Washington Book World on the back cover just annoys the heck out of me every time I see it, it's so pretentious. "...deftly limned protagonists...in the hyperbolic mode...cultural milieus..." so irritating!)
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