three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
27-Mar-Apr-2007
By: 
Jody Shields
user_rating: 
0

A-The Crimson PortraitDuring World War I, an English estate belonging to bereaved war widow Catherine becomes a makeshift hospital, where wounded soldiers are treated for their disfiguring facial injuries. The chief surgeon, Dr. McCleary, collaborates with an Armenian-born dental surgeon, Dr. Kazanjian, to repair the patients’ ruined faces. When they reach the limits of medicine’s power, they collaborate with an artist, American Anna Coleman, to construct realistic masks, which will hide the scars and allow the disfigured soldiers to interact with the outside world. Catherine is drawn to one of the wounded soldiers, Julian, who reminds her of her dead husband—and devises a way to convince herself that he is, indeed, him.
Little, Brown. 304 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 0316785288

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he author vividly shows how the viciousness of war can deal a fate that almost equals death: the complete transformation of a man’s most identifiable physical trait and the public humiliation that often accompanies the alteration. … [Her] lilting, intelligent prose shows what lengths one will go to relieve the hollow feeling of grief." Stephen J. Lyons

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s nothing uplifting in this novel, but that shouldn’t keep readers away. It’s beautifully presented and, as in Shields’ first novel … shimmers with her wonderfully descriptive and poetic style." Carol Memmott

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Crimson Portrait is not really a hospital drama (of which we have plenty anyway) but more a meditation on healing (of which we have far too little). … Without a false line, she’s managed to write beautifully about what, on the surface, seems too hideous to contemplate." Ron Charles

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book falters occasionally when its prose becomes overwritten and overwrought. … [S]he writes intelligent, credible dialogue and provides fascinating medical details— graphic but not repellant." Adam Woog

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The results aren’t as interesting as the raw material; the inevitable movie will probably be even less so. … [One scene] makes M. Night Shyamalan look like a master of restraint." Lauren Collins

Critical Summary

Jody Shields constructed her first novel, The Fig Eater (2000), around the imagined murder of Freud’s famous patient Dora. Similarly, two historical figures (Anna Coleman Ladd and Dr. Varaztad Kazanjian) provide the kernel of her absorbing new novel. Most critics loved this literary exploration of grief despite its unhurried plot; they praised the novel’s fascinating subject, its engaging characters, and its beautiful use of language. In sharp contrast, The New York Times criticized "pat similes," "stilted sexual subplots," and "mixed metaphors … so random as to bring to mind those kits for creating refrigerator poetry." Still, even this negative review grudgingly acknowledged that "this is potentially fascinating stuff" and commended Shields’s effort. For most of her fans, The Crimson Portrait will provide an engrossing read.