Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Crimson Portrait - Jody Shields

The Crimson Portrait
Jody Shields
Little, Brown and Company

Fiction/ Historical

When Charles left home to fight in World War I, he asked his young wife, Catherine to make him a promise: If he were to die in battle, she would allow their estate to become a field hospital. Catherine agreed. Upon news of her husband’s death, the new widow at first retreated into isolated grief. Then, attempting to feel closer to her husband, she carried out his last wish. The first floor of the estate became a hospital, mainly treating patients with facial injuries. Unprepared for the onslaught of suffering and nonstop movement, Catherine began to retreat again.

Then she met Julian, a young soldier whose face had been torn apart by shrapnel. Attending Julian was Dr. McCleary, a pioneer in what is now known as facial reconstruction. With the help of an artist, Dr. McCleary hopes to fashion masks of sorts to allow the men to lead normal lives. Catherine can’t see Julian’s face, as it remains covered. But in her lonely desperation, she comes to believe that she resembles her late husband, and expresses her desire that Dr. McCleary will use his experimental techniques to fashion a face for Julian that will resemble Charles. McCleary has reservations, but realizes the enormous significance of his work.

This novel is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. On the surface, it’s a story of love lost and life in a field hospital. But underneath, the emotions of the participants hold sway. Catherine’s loneliness and desire to have her husband returned to her are understandable; it’s her actions that are questionable. McCleary is a man doing work that will revolutionize the treatment of facial injuries, but he must balance that against the ethics of allowing Catherine to attempt to resurrect her husband through another man. Ironically, or perhaps not, the character who sees most clearly through the layers of desperation, despair, and self-delusion, is the artist, Anna, who paints pre-injury faces on the masks that may give normal lives back to the injured. The book raises some very interesting questions, and will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

Rating: 8
December 2006
ISBN# 0-316-78528-8 (hardcover)


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