“Fear, desire, lust and raw emotion ooze off the page.” That’s how Pittsburgh Tribune-Review book reviewer Jeff Ayers describes Connecticut author MJ Rose’s latest novel, The Witch of Painted Sorrows.
Between now and Sunday, April 5, use the #witchathon hasgtag to Tweet us the name of your favorite fictional witch, and you’ll be in the running to win a copy of The Witch of Painted Sorrows, which many call Rose’s most provocative and magical spellbinder yet. One winner will be randomly chosen from entries.
Set against the lavish spectacle of 1890s Belle Époque Paris, the novel tells the story of Sandrine Salome, who flees New York for her grandmother’s Paris mansion to escape her dangerous husband. Yet what she finds there is even more menacing.
The house, famous for its lavish art collection and elegant salons, is mysteriously closed up. Although her grandmother insists it’s dangerous for Sandrine to visit, she defies her and meets Julien Duplessi, a mesmerizing young architect. Together they explore the hidden night world of Paris, the forbidden occult underground and Sandrine’s deepest desires.
There, Sandrine discovers her erotic nature as a lover and painter. But darker influences threaten: Her cold and cruel husband is tracking her down, and something sinister is taking hold. Sandrine is becoming possessed by La Lune–a witch, a legend and 16th century courtesan, who opens Sandrine’s life to a darkness that is either a gift or a curse.
The Literary New England Radio Show has been fortunate to have this best-selling novelist as a guest several times, including a 2013 interview for her novel Seduction and a 2012 interview for The Book of Lost Fragrances.
Rose recently spoke about her inspirations for The Witch of Painted Sorrows:
What attracted you to 1890s Paris?
Belle Epoch Paris was a mélange of many different styles of art, poetry and philosophies. The old guard still ran the salons. Impressionism battled for wall space with symbolism. Cults sprang up around occultism, spiritism and inspired artists and writers. All that diversity fascinated me. I spent a long time at the Gustav Moreau museum, looking not just at his masterpieces, but examining the hundreds of sketches hidden away. I searched out art nouveau buildings and visited museums to look at the work of the Nabis whose name itself which came from the Hebrew word for “prophet,” evoked both their mysticism and determination to develop a new artistic language.
What inspired this book?
I was in Paris and visited an exhibition of a late sixteenth century female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a rarity and anomaly: A woman artist who succeeded despite enduring so much. While there was no suggestion she dabbled in the occult, her resilience and determination inspired me to create a woman named La Lune, a sixteenth century courtesan, the muse of a great artist who becomes a great artist herself.
While she isn’t the main character in the book, she is at its heart. It’s her descendant, Sandrine, who three hundred years later, comes to Paris and has to overcome society’s rules and mores in order to live out her passions — as a woman and an artist.
Art plays an important part in The Witch of Painted Sorrows— did you ever study painting?
Yes. I was six when I took my first art class. It was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And I’ve never stopped studying or wanting to be painter. When I visit a city the first place I go to is the museum. I am more at home looking at paintings and sculpture than doing anything including reading. Of every subject I am always drawn first to art and artists.
Why are you interested in the occult?
Being interested in and writing about the mystical and magical is in my blood. My great grandmother, who was French, hailed from a long line of Jewish gypsies. Grandma Berger read cards and used a crystal ball for decades to tell fortunes. She was the one who gave me a Ouija board when I was ten.
As I grew up, my great grandmother’s card and crystal ball readings continued, as did my interest in the paranormal and spiritual. Shortly before she died, and left me her own magical crystal ball, my great-grandmother tried to save my life. I was nineteen, and studying painting at Syracuse University. One morning Grandma Berger called my mother. In an urgent voice, she told my mother that I was going to be in a fire that afternoon and she needed to warn me. My mother called, told me what Grandma Berger had said and asked me please, wherever I went that day, to stay near an exit. I did. But nothing happened. Or so I thought.
At nine that night my boyfriend, who went to Cornell, called. He sounded terribly shook up. His apartment had burned down that afternoon. He was all right, but all his clothes, books and records were destroyed. And along with them fifteen canvases I had painted. Through my paintings, I had indeed been in a fire.
Is there one place in Paris that Sandrine visits that readers can visit still?
Café de Flores. It opened its doors at 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain in 1885 and has been one of the best people-watching cafes in Paris ever since. It’s not only one of the oldest but one of the most prestigious coffeehouses in Paris. Even though it’s next door neighbor is Les Deux Magots, frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others, Flore is the more prestigious and less touristy of the cafés. It’s worth waiting for a table on the terrace but the art deco interior with its red seating, mahogany and mirrors transports you back in time to pre-World War II. They also serve one of the best fromage and jambon omelets that can be had in Paris.