I’ve loved bestselling author M.J. Rose’s historical series as well as her stand-alone novels, so it’s no surprise that I jumped on The Witch of Painted Sorrows when I learned it was being published. This is a stand-alone novel with only a brief reference to the Paris L’Etoile family of perfumers who feature in her historical series. Obsession, possession, passion, courtesans, the art world of Belle Epoque Paris at the end of the 19th century, family secrets, and maybe even a curse: how could I say no? Sometimes family myths aren’t myths after all…
“I did not cause the madness, the deaths, or the rest of the tragedies any more than I painted the paintings. I had help, her help. Or perhaps I should say she forced her help on me. And so this story…is as much hers as mine. For she is the fountainhead. The fascination. She is La Lune. Woman of moon dreams, of legends and of nightmares.”
Sandrine Salome loved visiting her grandmother in Paris when she was a child and a young teenager. Her grandmother was and still is a famous courtesan, descended from a centuries-long lineage of well-known Parisian courtesans. She was not just very exotic seeming to this American raised child but she was wise, and always gave Sandrine good counsel about life. Sandrine worshipped her and loved her beautiful, stately home, Maison de La Lune, on a lane just off of Rue des Saints-Peres. That made it much harder when she was no longer allowed to visit her grandmother after an incident she still doesn’t understand. Her grandmother did come to visit her family in America but Sandrine was never again permitted to visit her grandmother in Paris.
Although her grandmother passed along to her many wise things, one thing Sandrine doesn’t understand is her grandmother’s insistence that the women in their family must never fall in love much less marry for love. Asking why not never got an answer: it was just the way it had to be and it was dreadfully important for some reason. Maybe that’s why Sandrine didn’t fight her father’s decision to marry her to one of the men in his firm, Benjamin. She knew her father loved her and wanted her to have a good life, and that he would never choose a man he didn’t believe would be good to her. She also knew that her father worried about her a lot. What he never could have imagined was how secretly cruel and abusive Benjamin was to her.
When Sandrine could bear the abuse no more, she fled Benjamin and America to find solace and safety with her grandmother in the 1894 world of Belle Epoque Paris. She was sure her grandmother, as an independent and outspoken woman who let no man own her, would be sympathetic to the way she had been mistreated. Nothing was the way Sandrine imagined it would be. Her grandmother was definitely not pleased to see her and had shockingly left her beautiful home for an apartment, saying the huge house was being renovated and was not safe to be lived in or even visited until the work was complete. Sandrine was heartbroken that the one person she had counted on to be on her side didn’t seem to want her there and, indeed, seemed almost frantic to send her back to America. She was also very upset that she wouldn’t be living in the house which she loved as much as she loved her grandmother.
“I expected her to greet me the same way she used to when she visited me in New York, with open arms and joy, but the woman standing in the doorway was frowning.
‘Sandrine, didn’t I tell you never to come back to Paris? This city is poison for you.’ Her voice was tense and tight. ‘Why didn’t you listen?’
And in those last four words I heard something I’d never heard in her voice before – fear.”
One afternoon, as Sandrine gazed longingly at the house, she saw her grandmother enter it with a handsome young man who she mistook for a client. Deciding that meant the house could be lived in, or at least visited, Sandrine plotted how to gain admittance. When she finally entered the house, she met the young man, Julien Duplessi. He was not a client at all but an architect her grandmother had hired to convert the house into a museum, which meant her grandmother had lied to her and did not plan to ever return to the home Sandrine loved and felt so drawn to.
Revisiting the house and her encounter with Julien is the combined catalyst that begins a gradual series of changes in Sandrine. She becomes obsessed with the house and with the women who have lived in it – particularly the original 16th century courtesan in her family, a woman known as La Lune and a woman some believed was a witch. Sandrine also becomes irresistibly drawn to and obsessed with painting, something she’s been only mildly interested in before. She’s determined to be accepted into the Paris art world and its best art school, a school which does not admit women students. She’s also entranced by Julien both physically and emotionally, and becomes obsessed with winning his love at any cost. Needless to say, Sandrine is changing in ways she could never have imagined and she embraces these changes with her whole being. She finally feels free to be who she was always meant to be. But is she or is some darker, more insidious force at work?
And while all of this is happening, Benjamin is relentless in trying to track her down so he can regain possession of her – or at least her abundant assets. She doesn’t believe he will find her in Paris since she laid a false trail and has not been known to visit there since she was a child; however, she has not counted on how ruthless he is willing to be to gain control over her wealth and her as an object he believes he owns.
“’You will make your own destiny, Sandrine. I’m sure of it.’
Was my father right? Do we make our own destiny? I think back now to the stepping stones that I’ve walked to reach this moment in time.
Were the incidents of my own making? Or were they my fate?”
“The one thing I am now sure of is that if there is such a thing as destiny, it is a result of our passion, be that for money, power, or love. Passion, for better or worse. It can keep a soul alive even if all that survives is a shimmering. I’ve even seen it. I’ve been bathed in it. I’ve been changed by it.”
Sandrine is a woman determined to break free of the severe restrictions the 19th century placed on women, and she sees in her grandmother someone who has been able to do just that. Paris looks like a life line to her in her misery. Her grandmother, on the other hand, is trying to protect Sandrine from a curse that has haunted and devastated the women in her family since the 16th century, if those women chose love. Because of an incident that happened when Sandrine was a teen in Paris, her grandmother has already seen what could happen if Sandrine falls in love and she would protect her from that fate at any cost – including the cost of her happiness. I’m not going to say anything about Julien, except that he’s the love interest – doh – or about Benjamin, to prevent spoilers.
M.J. Rose has a real talent for writing novels containing historical fact, fiction, and believable elements of the supernatural. Because it all weaves together so believably, I’m glad she unravels the difference for the reader in her Author’s Note. Fans who’ve grown to love her novels will be quite pleased with The Witch of Painted Sorrows. It’s the kind of novel I get so wrapped up in that I can’t put it down. I have to get the heroine out of the pickle she’s gotten herself into (no pun intended) – which, pun or not, brings me to a caveat. FYI: We have a policy of not reviewing novels with strong erotic content but this one has it – actually quite a bit of it. I debated not reviewing it because of our policy but I decided to make an exception. If you don’t like to read erotic content, you’ll want to give this one a pass. Otherwise, hang onto your seat because you’re in for a wild ride with M.J. Rose’s latest gothic thriller!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Witch of Painted Sorrows was published on March 17, 2015, so it’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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