Review by Booklist Review
When biographer Diliberto (A Useful Woman  and Debutante ) began researching John Singer Sargent's famous Portrait of Madame X, she discovered that little was known about the model beyond her name: Virginie "Mimi" de Avegno Gautreau. Fascinated by the portrait but lacking enough material for a biography, Diliberto used what little information she could find as the basis for this lively and provocative first novel. Born in the antebellum South, Mimi and her family were members of the Creole "aristocracy" who fled to France as the tide of the Civil War turned against the Confederacy. At the age of 11, Virginie says, "I was starting to sense I had something better than mere loveliness." At 15, she has the first of many love affairs, and by the time of her marriage, she is notorious in Paris for her daring makeup, revealing clothes, and extraordinary beauty. Approached by Sargent, she is at first reluctant to pose, but ultimately she is persuaded by the thought that the portrait will make her famous throughout Europe. Readers who enjoyed Amanda Foreman's very popular 2000 biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, will enjoy this fictional account of another outrageous woman. In Mimi, Diliberto has created a heroine who is as capricious and vain, and as compelling and seductive, as her portrait suggests. --Meredith Parets
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
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. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
John Singer Sargent's provocative portrait of aloof and alluring Virginie Gautreau scandalized the Paris Salon in 1884. In it, the artist offset his subject's luminous white skin with a revealing black evening gown. Captivated by the enigmatic Virginie, biographer Diliberto (A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams) decided to research her. While she didn't collect enough information to write a biography, she teased and tantalized the scant findings into a compelling novel. From New Orleans, where she was born and raised on her grandmother's Creole plantation, Virginie moved to France to escape the Civil War. In Paris, she married a banker and became a "professional beauty" known for her ostentatiousness. Diliberto's writing brings Virginie to life in a way that Sargent's portrait does not, creating a complex woman who recognizes that her beauty is her most precious commodity. The author uses evocative images and sharp descriptions of both people and places to create a word-picture of Parisian society at the turn of the century. Her characters are well imagined, revealing strengths and weakness that explain both who they are and what they have become. Highly recommended.-Caroline Hallsworth, Greater Sudbury P.L., ON (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Biographer Diliberto makes a credible fiction debut with the "memoir" of the woman whose portrait by John Singer Sargent scandalized the 1884 Paris Salon. Virginie Avegno Gautreau actually existed but left behind too little documentary material for a biography, says Diliberto (A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams, 1999, etc.). So she took the scant sources and fleshed them out into a plausible self-portrait of the Louisiana-born beauty immortalized by Sargent in a formfitting black dress with jeweled straps, her self-possession and pale skin suggesting a sexuality both overt and aloof. Diliberto's heroine is the child of a Civil War widow who flees to Paris in 1862, when Virginie is seven, and begins using her daughter's looks to gain entry into high society before she's even hit puberty. In 1871, the 16-year-old is seduced and made pregnant by a handsome doctor. She enters a platonic marriage with wealthy Pierre Gautreau and takes a number of lovers, though now she distrusts all men. Her real job, she informs us, is "professional beauty. . . I learned the art of making a grand entrance [and] never went anywhere without full makeup and an impeccable toilette." After the Parisian scandal sheets have made her famous, Sargent is drawn to her beauty and notoriety. But the boldness of Gautreau's sexuality and of Sargent's technique in Portrait of Madame X outrage both the bourgeois public and the art critics; the painting's exhibition is both the apotheosis of Virginie's celebrity and the beginning of its degradation. Diliberto offers nothing terribly exciting in her readable narrative, though she does provide insight into the artistic process (the preliminary sketches "reflect my personality far better than the formal portrait," Virginie notes. "But Sargent wasn't interested in that. He wanted something else, a cooler, more iconic image"). Agreeable entertainment along the lines of Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Passion of Artemesia.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.