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I Am Madame X: A Novel Paperback – May 11, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (May 11, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743456807
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743456807
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,085 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Mystery is often more alluring than knowledge. A fictional memoir of the legendary American-born beauty Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's famous 1884 painting, Portrait of Madame X, Gioia Diliberto's I Am Madame X risks dashing cold water on one of the loveliest and most persistent mysteries in Western art history: what the model is thinking. Following in the footsteps of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, though with much more historical documentation at her disposal, Diliberto gives voice to a woman whose memory rests on this single painting. A gem of Belle Époque Paris, Virginie Gautreau had fled Louisiana with her mother during the Civil War. Married at a young age to a French banker, she attracted every kind of attention with her unusual beauty and her daring fashion sense. Her affairs were widely whispered about. Diliberto presents a vivid picture of Virginie's life and times, and brings to life one model's troubled but stimulating relationship with the artist who immortalized her. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Paris gasped and gossiped when John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X was first exhibited in 1884. Everyone knew the subject was the notorious Virginie Gatreau, and Sargent's shocking depiction-posed in profile, the woman boasts bare shoulders, deep decolletage and an exotically pale complexion-intimately suggested her vanity, arrogance and sexuality. In her first novel (after biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway and Brenda Frazier), Diliberto competently imagines Gatreau's controversial life. During the Civil War, six-year-old Virginie, her younger sister and her widowed mother flee the Union soldiers approaching her grandmother's sugar plantation in Louisiana. As an expatriate in Paris, Virginie (or Mimi, as she is called) becomes a "professional beauty," someone who is "received in the best society but ha[s] no other occupation, no other ambition than to be beautiful." At 15, she begins trysting with a married doctor. Pregnant, she hastily marries social climber Pierre Gatreau (and then suffers a miscarriage). Later, she has an affair with French Republican leader Leon Gambetta. Her life is filled with tragedy: the shame of pregnancy, the death of her sister from typhoid and her emotional isolation. Her only trustworthy relative is her Aunt Julie, who refuses to marry and becomes a professional artist; Virginie's narcissistic mother uses her daughter to get into the top echelons of society. This fast scroll through history (the Civil War, the fall of the French Second Empire, the belle epoque, etc.) against a backdrop of parties, salons, operas, artists' studios and sexual escapades is inviting for its wealth of well-researched period details, but limited by its narrator's sensibility. In this evocation, Virginie Gatreau never becomes anything more than a shallow object of beauty.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

I definitely enjoyed the book and would recommend it anyone I know who likes to read about other people's lives.
Nadia Noel
This is a lovely and revealing story of her life and family, even if, as the author says, much liberty is taken with facts, being that many were non-existent.
Marie Wise
The flatly drawn characters utter melodramatic phrases, one after the other, creating a work that reads more like a soap opera script than a novel.
R. Shields

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Kelley F. on October 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
What do you do if you are a biographer who falls in love with a painting but can't find enough historical evidence to write the life story of the painting's subject? You make something up! That is precisely what Ms. Diliberto has done in this enjoyable, albeit romanticized, fictional adaptation of the life of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's 1884 painting, Madame X.
Ms. Diliberto saw Sargent's masterpiece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and knew immediately that she wanted to do a biography on the enigmatic woman depicted in the painting. Unfortunately, when she undertook the project, she could not find enough information on the subject. As a result, she took the information she had managed to collect and used Madame X as the subject of her first fictional work. The novel is similar to other recent works of historical fiction, such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Other Boleyn Girl.
The novel itself is a quick and enjoyable read. The main character is well-developed, though I cannot say the same for most of the supporting characters. It is hard to say whether or not their lack of depth is a failing on the author's part or a deliberate attempt to emphasize the superficial nature of the main character. Everyone's appearance is vividly described, as is the environment in which they live, so I would venture to say that the lack of insight into their intellect is deliberate. Virginie lives a life dictated by appearances.
There are instances where the dissemination of the historical fact seems a bit heavy-handed. Those instances are probably a result of Ms. Diliberto's background as a biographer. I was impressed with her descriptive abilities and her flair for social melodrama.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. Shields on February 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
As an art historian, I approached this book with a degree of trepidation. In the vein of The Da Vinci Code, so many works of historical fiction run so contrary to what is known about art that they are laughably unrealistic. I realize that these books are fiction, but the best historical fiction is written with an eye to the known facts, in an attempt to make the story more plausible. I'm not looking for, "We don't know what happened, so I can make anything up." I'm looking for, "Given what we do know, this story could very well have been possible, even though we'll never know for certain." (Tracy Chevalier excells at this.)

Diliberto so ignores the facts of art history that this book is virtually impossible to choke down. Virginie Gautreau, for one thing, typically went by her middle name, Amelie. She even signed letters this way. It wouldn't have taken Diliberto, an already established biographer, an inordinate amount of research to figure this out. This mistake at the beginning of the book was a harbinger of the boring, unresearched story to come.

I could forgive a lack of research, however, had the book been well written, but it was, quite simply, awful. The flatly drawn characters utter melodramatic phrases, one after the other, creating a work that reads more like a soap opera script than a novel. While Gautreau's life certainly did read like a tabloid at times, Diliberto's dialogue is completely unrealistic, oscillating between unintentionally comical and downright grating on the nerves.

I have to suggest that anyone intrigued by this painting read Deborah Davis's Strapless instead. Though not a work of fiction, it is written in a style that is more conversational than academic, and it's an easy and rewarding read. Davis also put quite a lot of effort into her research, and it shows. Too bad Diliberto didn't bother.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Romantic Anna on April 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This novel is about a woman whose portrait at the Metropolitan has fascinated me to such a degree that I considerate it my favorite portrait. Therefore, I was intrigued by the idea of a novel about this mysterious creature. The pseudo-autobiography is quite breezy- indeed, I finished the book in hours. I enjoyed the parts of Virginie's story prior to posing for Sargent, especially the scenes in Louisiana, which breathe with life and detail. The rest of the novel definitely falls flat and there is no conclusion, but rather an abrupt end. Still, if you are facinated by the topic, it is a worthy addition to the Madame X library.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By HeyJudy VINE VOICE on August 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
Sometimes, one must wonder about the synchronicity of energy in the universe. First, STRAPLESS, a joint biography of artist John Singer Sargent and his most famous subject, Virginie Gautreau, is published. Virtually on the heels of STRAPLESS comes I AM MADAME X, a fictionalized biography of the same Virginie Gautreau.

To be sure, I AM MADAME X is the easier of these two books to read, and it tells a marvelous tale. Still, since it openly is fiction, it is difficult to discern where historic fact ends and author Gioia Diliberto's fertile imagination has taken over the purportedly first-person report. Though Diliberto's scholarship seems excellent, there is no doubt that she has fabricated backstories to explain some of the recognized events in Virginie's life.

There is her detailed explanation of Virginie's strange marriage, and a subplot about an American black woman who has moved to Paris and is trying to pass as white. How true any of these anecdotes may be are impossible for the reader to know.

Too, the author's conclusion as to the pleasure that Virginie and her family derived from Sargent's famous painting is in direct contradiction to the details offered in the non-fictional biography.

Nonetheless, I AM MADAME X provides one of the best "contemporaneous" accounts of the Paris Commune of 1870, and of the emergence of the Belle Epoque period.

Taken together, STRAPLESS and I AM MADAME X offer wonderful insight into the late 19th Century Parisian social set.
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