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First Fiction

March 23, 2003|Mark Rozzo

I Am Madame X

Gioia Diliberto

Scribner: 272 pp., $25

Gioia Diliberto is a biographer of such notable women as Jane Addams and Hadley Hemingway. Her first novel, "I Am Madame X," zeroes in on a similarly fascinating heroine, Virginie Avegno Gautreau, the belle epoque beauty with the heart-shaped decolletage, alabaster shoulders and haughty, pointy-nosed profile made famous -- or infamous -- in John Singer Sargent's "The Portrait of Madame X."

It's a blessing, really, that Diliberto's assiduous research bumped up against dead ends, for Diliberto fills in the blanks of Virginie's life with vivid brush strokes that rival "the insolence, the vulgarity, the unmuted sex" of Sargent's own scandalous 1884 portrait. They also create a canvas of fact and fancy that's as savory as Madame X's impossibly long neck.

Virginie Avegno, it turns out, was born on a French-speaking Louisiana sugar cane plantation called Parlange, the daughter of a dashing gent killed at Shiloh. With the war tightening its grip on the Confederacy, Virginie and her willful, aspiring mother flee to Paris, where they become established in the city's Southern expatriate community and where Virginie blooms into an enthralling beauty.

What ensues is a complex and often incredibly fun portrait, in which Diliberto deftly highlights the heady social whirl of Paris, the vexed relations between the French and Americans, the indelicate eruptions of sexuality in corseted times and the inescapable undertow of race: As a Paris convent student, Virginie's American best friend is cruelly outed as a passing Negro; and her mother forces arsenic upon Virginie to lighten her already ghostly complexion.

Throughout, Diliberto weaves in various historical figures, some of whom are drawn to Virginie's boudoir. There's the rakish Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, who turns up under a different guise in Proust; the great French Republican Leon Gambetta; and, of course, Sargent himself, an ill-at-ease fellow navigating the perilous whims of a fickle, anti-American public. No, the master portraitist and his earthy subject don't end up hooking up; Diliberto always knows precisely just where to set the limits in this handsomely imagined story.

*

The Hazards

of Good Breeding

Jessica Shattuck

W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $23.95

Remember WASPs? Reading Jessica Shattuck's pitch-perfect novel is like spying on the children and grandchildren of John Cheever's Wapshots. Intransigent Yankees are as rare as dodos in contemporary fiction, but in "The Hazards of Good Breeding," they still live in their hermetic world "of desperate, distraction-seeking love affairs with golf, paddle tennis, squash, and backgammon; of memberships at the Ponkatawset Club and coat-and-tie thirtieth birthday parties; of having the same conversations with the same people in the same mind-numbingly dull places forever."

But a few hairline cracks are opening in the old-money fortress of coming-out parties, boarding schools and alcoholism, and Caroline Dunlap, Shattuck's gimlet-eyed heroine, has a knack for rooting them out. Recently graduated from, as she guiltily calls it, "Harvard?," she's back at the drafty Dunlap place in Concord, Mass., where her divorced father, Jack, insists on living in 18th century drabness and her 8-year-old brother, Eliot, seems intent on re-creating his own weird version of Paul Revere's ride. Meanwhile, Caroline's mother, Faith, is living in New York following a stint in a mental hospital. Aside from traditional bouts with divorce and dysfunction, the Dunlaps are facing some distinctively new encroachments: heavy marijuana use (in the person of stoner Rock Coughlin), the prying eyes of an interloping documentary filmmaker and the looming possibility of -- gasp -- interracial offspring.

Your typical Shattuck Concordian "carries with him an air of extinction, the whiff of inevitable endings." But Shattuck has little patience for the mythology of noble dissipation. "The Hazards of Good Breeding" exposes a well-bred enclave rooted in selfishness, hypocrisy and insecurity. But, more radical, it depicts -- with grace, humor and insight -- a Mayflower-pedigree family with a staggering amount of heart.

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