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OMG OMG OMG. Just finished this book. One of the best I've ever read. I will be posting the review below. How did I miss her for so long? Has anyone read any of her other books? Are they as good? I sure hope so.
Not Your Typical Romance
If you’re tired of clichéd romances with the same story lines and flat, one-dimensional characters, look no further than Megan Chance’s novel The Portrait. Jonas Whitaker is a brilliant 19th century artist in New York, at that time the center of the American art world. He struggles with bipolar disorder (aka manic depression), on a roller coaster of volatile and sometimes frighteningly out of control and even destructive emotions. (This is the same mood disorder that afflicted artist Vincent van Gogh as well as many other artists and writers). Jonas lives an isolated existence. He channels his volatile emotions into his art and is incredibly productive and brilliant during his hypomanic episodes and completely dysfunctional and unproductive during his depressions. His only close friend is fellow artist Rico Childs, who has a studio in the same building. In addition to his painting, Jonas instructs a select group of handpicked students in the finer points of oil painting.
Jonas is extremely irritated and resentful when his wealthy patron forces a new student on him, the patron’s godchild. Not only is the new student inexperienced and mediocre, but she is a woman. At the time, it was highly unusual for women to pursue art as a career. Jonas knows his patron will withdraw support if he doesn’t accept her as a student, but if he can scare off the female student so she quits on her own, he is home free, or so he thinks. He regards the female student, Imogene Carter, as a colorless, spiritless pampered shrinking violet and is certain he can make short work of scaring her off. He subjects her to the harshest possible criticism as well as deliberate humiliation and embarrassment and is baffled and angry when she returns to class regardless week after week. His attempts to scare her off include a nude model as well as attempts to kiss her. None of this fazes Imogene, whom Jonas calls Genie, since he fascinates her and she hopes his brilliance will rub off on her. Genie has grown up in the shadow of her sister Chloe, who was not only a beautiful blue-eyed blonde, but also an accomplished artist. Genie’s father doted on Chloe, who died in a cholera outbreak, and Genie enrolls in the art classes in an effort to gain the approval of her overbearing, controlling father and become an artist like the late Chloe. In contrast to Chloe, Genie believes she is plain and talentless.
In the course of her art studies, Genie hears rumors that Jonas is mad. Even this rumor doesn’t scare her off. When she mentions it to her godfather, he pooh-poohs the idea. One day she witnesses some truly disturbing behavior that suggests the rumors may be true. As the two spend more and more time together, she sees Jonas in the brilliance and elation of his hypomanias, followed by the destructiveness and rage of manic episodes and the quiet despair and bleak helplessness of his depressions. She grows friendly with his best friend, Rico, in an attempt to understand Jonas better. Even Rico can only put up with Jonas for so long and escapes to Paris for several months every year to take a break from him.
As the two grow closer, Jonas repeatedly pushes Genie away, afraid she will eventually abandon him like his family, friends and lovers who can only tolerate his drama for so long. An excerpt here is illustrative.
"The thought made his chest tight. Not seeing her again, not touching her...It was absurd how desperate it made him feel. But there was no choice, and he knew it. He knew what happened to the people who stayed with him, God knew he'd seen it a hundred times before. He could picture it in his mind, knew that eventually he would see a painfully familiar look in her eyes, the same look he'd seen in those of his family, of his friends. The dull expression, the fear, the pain. And finally, the good-bye.
Jonas is a tortured hero in the extreme, more lovable for all his vulnerability. Genie is also a flawed, imperfect character with self-esteem and daddy issues. Jonas is the only man who has ever made Genie feel alive and beautiful. Together, they find the comfort and love that redeems them. I don’t want to create spoilers, but the ending is very dramatic and emotional and relates to the book’s title. My only criticism of the book is that I wanted it to be a bit longer. The conclusion was a bit abrupt for my taste and I would have liked another 20-30 pages to tie up most of the loose ends.
On a scale of 1-5, I give this book a 5+. Its strengths are outstanding character development and a plot that takes you on a roller-coaster ride, much as Jonas’ illness affected him. The love scenes are sensual and tender, although I would have liked more of them. The writing is also exquisite. I have the “bad” habit of dog-earing the corners of my books when I like something on that page. It might be a turn of phrase or description the author wrote. When I finished The Portrait, it resembled an accordion. The insights we obtain into the inner working of the mind of someone with bipolar are so shockingly accurate that I don’t think one could glean them from any amount of research. I think it takes personal experience with this illness or living with a loved one with this illness to gain this sort of insight. I can say this because I have a “mild” form of bipolar illness myself. This book is a definite keeper and a must read for anyone who loves outstanding historical romance.
I have read one and collected several books by this author. I guess I wasn't really impressed by the one that I read. I will have to revisit her. I have several on the TBR pile but none of them are the book, The Portrait. It does sound like a new topic for a romance read. Writing about artists in a realistic way is hard enough without including the Manic-Depressive disorder part.