review: the crimson portrait

17 02 2009

When I posted before about The Crimson Portrait, I had high hopes for the book.  I was intrigued by the scenario Shields came up with, though I was having trouble with how abruptly the scenes shifted.  That only continued to nag at me as I continued my reading.

The novel is set during WWI.  Catherine has lost her husband in the fighting and their home is turned into a hospital for men with facial wounds.  A surgeon and a dentist figure prominently in the story, as does Anna, an artist, who sketches the men’s faces as a way of documenting their surgeries and she also undertakes the making of masks to hide the men’s disfigurement.  One of the patients, Julian, reminds Catherine of her husband and she works to have his mask take on the appearance of her husband rather than Julian’s pre-injury face.

All of the characters in the novel are broken.  Catherine is made delusional by her grief, but all of the other central characters are also haunted by the war and their role in it.  There was beautiful language and imagery throughout, but as the story continued I found many scenes and relationships underdeveloped, with the most strongly sketched one being between Catherine and Anna, with the bitterness between them seeming to spring from Anna’s resentment of the way in which Catherine and Julian’s form a relationship, while she herself denies her love for Kassavian, a dentist working on healing the men.  The ending too I found lacking in detail, and while I was drawn to the characters, I became frustrated with the abruptness of the scenes as a whole and that made it a much less enjoyable reading experience for me.

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