December 2006 Archives

Book Review: "The Crimson Portrait"
December 29, 2006 4:40 PM | Posted in:

I can't say that I'm a big fan of romance novels. Can't say that I'm not, either, since I've never knowingly read one (Jonathan Livingston Seagull was as close as I ever came and it doesn't count because it was the Seventies and I was trying to impress someone). So when a review copy of The Crimson Portrait showed up in my mailbox, unsolicited, from Hachette Book Group USA, I was skeptical.

But I was also a bit intrigued, as the introductory letter from Hachette's "marketing specialist" used the word "creepy" in the summary of the book, which partially offset the comparison to The English Patient, a book (and movie) which I've studiously avoided.

After reading the book, I can honestly say that it didn't make me into a fan of the romance genre, but I can give it a recommendation to those who are interested in "historical fiction" or who like their dramas mixed with some interesting medical trivia.

The plot synopsis goes something like this. A centuries-old British country estate is converted into a military surgical facility at the beginning of World War I. The estate's owner was a doctor who was killed in the early days of the war, and his widow -- who suffers from a pathological degree of grief -- offered her home as a hospital. But this is no ordinary hospital, as it is devoted solely to the treatment of soldiers with severe cranio-facial injuries, injuries so severe that all reflective surfaces have been banned from the estate, so that the victims cannot see the extent of their wounds.

The treatment and repair of such injuries was at that time unmapped territory. The surgeons assigned to these cases had no modern precedents, instead relying upon ancient texts -- Chinese, Middle Eastern, East Indian, etc. -- and their own intuition and ingenuity to rebuild or reshape faces. Jody Shields, the author, did extensive research into the history of these surgical techniques, and has inserted the details throughout the novel.

But the book explores more than the medical aspects of such injuries. The widowed estate owner encounters a wounded soldier into whom she imbues the personality and mannerisms of her late husband, and she hatches a plan to more fully transform the fellow into a proxy for the departed doctor with the unsuspecting help of the military surgeons and their assistants, including a female artist whose role it is to record the "before and after" of the treatments.

The book's strengths are in its descriptions of the medical challenges of the day and the profiles of the doctors who did their best to shelter those in their care from the horrifying ravages of war. The author touches upon, but doesn't fully explore the extent to which our facial features define us, physically and emotionally, both to ourselves and to those who know us. Unfortunately, the reader is never drawn fully into the story; we're left to be onlookers, but not participants. The novel also has a rather unsatisfying and abrupt end, as if the author lost enthusiasm for the plot or the characters. (Some of the other reviews I read spun this into a positive thing: "you'll want more!")

In the end, even though it's slightly flawed, The Crimson Portrait is still a worthwhile investment of reading time, especially for those who enjoy historical fiction.

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