Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore
Genre: Historical fiction, humor, satire, art, is this real life?
Rating: 4.67 out of 5 stars
Summary: Impressionists throughout Paris are stricken with strange bouts of memory loss and sitings of a mysterious Colorman. At the center of these curiosities are baker/painter Lucien Lessard and his friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who are investigating the mysterious death of their friend Vincent Van Gogh. As if things weren’t strange enough, the love of Lucien’s life Juliette has returned to town and with her a rise in the use of the sacred blue.
Some books cannot be read on an eReader (at least not a black and white eReader), but require full physical immersion, this being one of them. With a focus on art and the color blue, the aesthetic choice was to make all the book’s text blue. Chapter titles, numbers, heading, page numbers, and even the prose are all in shades of blue. Think taking House of Leaves to the next level. The cover is also done in shades of blue to represent the theme (I have included an uncovered less “scandalous” version of this later in the review). There are also paintings scattered throughout that inform the text, but more on that in another section. For now I’ll discuss the plot without giving too many of the surprises away.
Sacré Bleu is ultimately although not completely centered around the strange suicide of Vincent Van Gogh, who shot himself in the chest in the middle of a field and then walked to a doctor’s house where he died. And you thought the ear thing was the weirdest stunt he ever pulled- don’t worry, that comes up too. While not focused entirely on Van Gogh’s death, it covers the Impressionist painters (and Post-Impressionists) who stumble on the inner workings behind his death, which if you think about it, is an awfully bizarre way to commit suicide. It was this mystery that took off in Christopher Moore’s imagination and created this novel, his most ambitious and unique yet. Although I might still love A Dirty Job just a little more. It was my gateway book into Moore’s insane wacky worldview and has a special place in my heart.
Since this is a novel written around some real life history, Paris from 1863 to 1891, it’s peppered with famous painters, models, and writers. Vincent and Theo van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, Seurat, Gauguin, Berthe Morisot, Whistler, and Pissarro are just some of the recurring figures in the narrative as it travels back and force across time. There’s even an appearance of Oscar Wilde himself. His cameo is particularly fun so I won’t give away how he ties into all this. Just like you can’t go wrong with including Lord Byron in your text, the same goes for Oscar Wilde in my mind.
As Moore explains in his afterward, he initially started off with the intent to write a book about blue (sacred blue/ultramarine blue), an overarching theme which surprisingly didn’t get away from him. He based all the artists’ personalities on diary entries and other sources from people who knew them, which is greatly appreciated. It’s always difficult to read historical fiction- even very fictionalized historical fiction like this novel- and not get attached to the characters. To find out they were invented by the author (which I thankfully knew was true of Lucien Lessard ahead of time) or that their personas were altered, ruins our perception of them. Moore did a fabulous job working around this problem with copious research. You will fall in love with these characters, contemplating whether to invent a time machine just to visit them.
Of course that’s not to say there weren’t fictional characters, those based off real life people or inventions in Sacré Bleu. For example, the eccentric Les Professeurs was inspired by someone from Renoir’s writing who trained rats and mice to perform chariot-race scenes from Ben-Hur like his fictional counterpart. Despite this, a lot of the novel was inspired by real life events, those revolving around the sacred blue notwithstanding. Most of these in particular are the stories about art, which made the inclusion of artwork interwoven into the narrative much less forced than in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Since they function for you to see which art is being discussed/given a back story rather than to inform the narrative, it works a lot better in this instance. If you recognize the art already, even better.
Continuing with what makes this book so unique is the use of interludes scattered throughout the story, which are about art and the color blue. In them you will learn how nudes in art work (hint: boobies), that the Virgin Mary’s cloak was decreed by the church to be painted in ultramarine (a color that was more expensive than gold) called sacré bleu or sacred blue, among other things. They’re a nice, fun break from the narrative and occasionally Moore puts a lot of his humorous writing style (those not dedicated to Henri) into these sections.
Another strength of Moore’s is his ability to create amazingly vivid characters. First and foremost are Lucien, Juliette, and the Colorman, the three invented main characters. They are really brought to life, and Moore is able to weave back and forth through time in the narrative without confusing the reader. The Colorman and Juliette are surrounded with the most intrigue and mystery, and Lucien’s relationship with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is adorable. Henri provides just the right amount of comic relief, adding rather than detracting from the narrative with his antics. Moore’s humor shines particularly bright through womanizing lush Henri.
-Does a great job of researching and properly representing historical subjects
-Funny take on a subject (as always), Moore’s most ambitious yet!
-Book works on all senses, with inclusion of art and even the color of the text
-Interludes were fun and allows even more humor to come through
-Makes me want to know these characters in a more personal way
-Discussions of art/delving into art history can get confusing/tiresome for some
There is so much peppered throughout this novel that it would be impossible to cover everything in one review. From the hilarious chapter titles (my favorite is a T.S. Eliot reference), and the repeated reminders of my prior art history classes (chiaroscuro and Caravaggio, Manet painting non-mythical nudes, pointillism, etc) this narrative is chock full of fun tidbits and a stellar plot. I cannot recommend Moore’s work- this one in particular- highly enough. If I had the money I would give everyone free copies of this novel just to spread the fun and irreverence of Christopher Moore.