My personal goal for 2012 is to read sixty books. Sacré Bleu is number thirty-one, putting me into the second half of my book goal right as the second half of the year starts. This tidbit of information is likely unimportant to all but me, though in the first half of 2012 I have already surpassed the total number of books I read in all of 2009 and 2010, and I’m close to passing the total number of books I read in 2003-2005. Those were the three years I was in vet school for the entire calendar year. And how does this impact our readers? More reviews for you guys to enjoy.
My friend Ronit introduced to Christopher Moore sometime in vet school. She had read Bloodsucking Fiends and passed it on to me. I read it, loved it, and off I went to the store to start buying up the entire Christopher Moore collection. What I liked about Bloodsucking Fiends was that it was about vampires, in a familiar location (San Francisco), and it was fucking hilarious (Bethany assures me we are not a PG blog, so I’m going ahead and dropping the F-bomb). I haven’t read all of Christopher Moore’s books, but I’ve read a fair few of them, mostly all about the vampires from Bloodsucking Fiends, one about the grim reaper living in San Francisco (A Dirty Job, also awesome), and Fool, which is a reimagining of King Lear only with witches. I’ve loved all of his books I’ve read, with the exception of Fool. And I didn’t not like Fool, so much as it made me feel dumb because I didn’t understand all of the clever Shakespeare jokes. I think I’m probably going to have to reread it after we do King Lear for the AP English Challenge and then I’ll get it and feel smart again. I was a bit concerned that stepping into the world of this book would make me feel stupid, just like Fool did. But I need not have been nervous. Nineteenth century Paris is much less intimidating than living inside Shakespeare.
There are some cool visual things about this book: the type is all in blue. A nice dark blue, so it’s not awkward to read, but still blue. And since this book is about art, there are lots of pictures of the paintings that are being described in the text. I’ve never quite gotten over losing pictures in books when I graduated from the kids section of the bookstore, so this was an added bonus, and saved me some time having to look paintings up on the internet. Also the page edges are deckle-edged, which I think adds a bit of fanciness to a book.
As mentioned this book takes place in Paris in the late nineteenth century, primarily in the neighborhood of Montmartre, home of artists and bohemians and such things. To me, it’s also the home of Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor in Moulin Rouge. This area of Paris was apparently the home of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The main characters are Lucien Lessard, fictional artist and son of Montmartre’s most favored baker and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a real person who was a nobleman, painter, and denizen of all the famous bars and whorehouses in Paris. The plot circles around Lucien and his love, Juliette, who is more than she appears to be. Turns out that Juliette is really a muse named Bleu, and she is responsible for inspiring the creation of quite a few of the Impressionists’ paintings. She travels around with a disgusting fellow called The Colorman, and has been doing so forever. And I mean forever. Since 38,000 BC, if the dates in the book are to be believed. The Colorman makes the pigment for a prized color called ultramarine blue which is very rare and expensive, and Juliette brings it to artists they choose to inspire. It may not be a coincidence that many of the inspired either go crazy or die of syphilis, or both. A lot of their methods for inspiration involve sex and dirty talking. Many famous painters have cameos, such as Monet, Manet, Renoir, Whistler, and others. (Apparently Degas was a dick, by the way.) Moore imbues them with real personalities. I know he did a prodigious amount of research for this book, so I’m assuming that at least some aspects of their personalities may be drawn from real life.
I really did enjoy this book—though I wish I had real knowledge of the geography of Paris and its environs. I also wish I had more knowledge of painting and painters and Impressionism. I learned a lot just reading this book and doing some Wikipedia searches during and afterwards. I avoided art classes because I didn’t want to have to draw anything. Ever. At all. Unfortunately that made me miss out on learning about art history, art theory, art everything. Having Christopher Moore’s wonderful dialogue skills applied to painters from over one hundred years ago is great. He has such a wonderful ear for capturing language how people actually speak it. Maybe that wasn’t how they talked in the 1800’s but I don’t care. I’ll just pretend it’s accurate because it’s so funny. This book was not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his earlier works that I’ve read, but that could just be because of the material. This book is absurd, for sure, but there’s also real tragedy contained in its pages—the Van Gogh brothers die, painters go crazy, and there’s a donkey in a straw boater hat. His name is Etienne. And I have no idea why he is there.
I did feel like the book took a long time to find its footing before it got going. Moore’s books usually grab me right from the beginning and I get through them quickly. This one took longer. And maybe that’s just because it was a longer book than he usually puts out (400 pages and his usual books are under 300), or because I was reading it while trying to camp. Maybe there were too many cameos of famous painters just for the sake of having cameos of famous painters. I know it was important to describe the depth and breadth of Bleu and The Colorman’s influence on art over the years, but maybe a couple more stories about different artists in different times and less Pisarro and Manet. I would have liked to have seen more of Bleu and Lucien’s dad interacting once all that comes out (no spoilers here beyond that) in the open, too. Maybe a little less Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in whorehouses. But then, that’s when Moore is at his best—describing bawdy dialogue in bawdy situations.
There is room left for a sequel to this book if Moore wants to do it. I think I would read it. I liked Lucien and Henri, and the relationship between Bleu and The Colorman was fascinating. Their dialogue was responsible for the bulk of the humor in the novel. I also think that this is a book that would get better with a rereading—it’s a fairly dense one, and there seem to be layers of meaning and historical in-jokes hiding in there waiting for someone to notice them.
I’d definitely recommend this book if you are interested in Paris and painting and enjoy a little potty humor. Definitely people who love Christopher Moore should read it. But if you want an introduction to this wonderful, hilarious absurdist novelist, start with his earlier books and work up to this. His style and focus is definitely evolving, and I love to see that in writers, but he may be leaving some stuff behind that he shouldn’t.
If you are interested in reading Sacré Bleu, you should definitely check out Moore’s Chapter Guide website. It’s got extra information and more paintings than are in the book.