Paris is a city of passion. Passion for art. Passion for love. Passion for trouble. Often all three are wound together, and never tighter than in the Belle Epoque. It’s passion that leads Lucien Lessard to pursue painting instead of following in the family business of breadmaking, and it’s passion in the guise of a mysterious man and his femme fatale associate that seems to be killing painters left and right. Lucien might be next to fall, but thankfully he’s got his studio-mate and friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec working to help him—whether he likes it or not.
Christopher Moore’s latest novel seamlessly blends magical realism with comic rompery in an astonishing group portrait of one of the most vibrant periods in art history. Like his previously acclaimed book, “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” “Sacre Bleu” mixes research and artful humor to produce a thought-provoking work of literature. The stars of late-nineteenth-century art make numerous cameos, both tragic and comic, from Whistler and his mother to Van Gogh and his wheat fields. Many of the paintings referred or alluded to are reproduced throughout the book; and although they are only in black-and-white, many of the images are striking enough to pause the reading entirely. There’s a woman the main character is in love with, but the novel is far from a simple romance. Instead, it presents a thorough portrait of what drives an artist, even one who may not be blessed with genius, who struggles against the inertia of everyday life to hone what talent he can.
The color blue is many things in the novel: a MacGuffin, a deus ex machina, a modus operandi and more. The actual history of the color blue as a pigment is fascinating enough, blue being one of the harder colors of paint to produce during the time period, and for many years used sparingly for great visual significance. (The titular phrase, literally “sacred blue,” correlates to its association with the Virgin Mother in Catholic iconography.) It’s a testament to Moore’s skill as a writer that for all the screwball capering, supernatural chicanery and historical guest appearances, “Sacre Bleu” flows as smooth as a stroke of ultramarine on canvas, painting a sweeping panoramic ode to the euphoric pain of love. (Greg Baldino)
By Christopher Moore
William Morrow, 416 pages, $27