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I Am Madame X

I Am Madame X

A Novel

  • reading group guide
When John Singer Sargent unveiled Madame X -- his famous portrait of American beauty Virginie Gautreau -- at the 1884 Paris Salon, its subject's bold pose and provocative dress shocked the public and the critics, smashing Sargent's dreams of a Paris career. In this remarkable novel, Gioia Diliberto tells Virginie's story, drawing on the sketchy historical facts to re-create Virginie's tempestuous personality and the captivating milieu of nineteenth-century Paris. Born in New Orleans and raised on a lush plantation, Virginie fled to France during the Civil War, where she was absorbed into the fascinating and wealthy world of grand ballrooms, dressmakers' salons, and artists' ateliers. Even before Sargent painted her portrait, Virginie's reputation for promiscuity and showy self-display made her the subject of vicious Paris gossip.
Immersing the reader in Belle Epoque Paris, I Am Madame X is a compulsively readable and richly imagined novel illuminating the struggle between Virginie and Sargent over the outcome of a painting that changed their lives and affected the course of art history.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 272 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743456807 | 
  • May 2004
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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for Gioia Diliberto's I Am Madame X
1. In Chapter 1, Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau (Madame X) surmises that her "unconscious mind" dwells in the Old South. Throughout the novel, Madame X is extremely nostalgic about the old days at Parlange. Why do you think she never returned to permanently to New Orleans?
2. In the final chapter Virginie admits: "I believe my life would have been easier if we hadn't moved to France." Do you agree? If so, describe how life was harder for Virginie as an American in Paris. How would have been easier in New Orleans?
3. Of the two settings, Paris and New Orleans, which do you find more appealing, more visceral?
4. Discuss the narrative voice of Madame X. What does her telling of the story reveal about her as a character? Do you find her narcissistic? Insecure? Does Virginie recognize her own beauty or is her self-esteem based on other people's commentary?
5. Describe Virginie's relationship with her mother. How did the mother-daughter dynamic affect Virginie's relationship with men? With other women? With her own daughter?
6. Do you think Virginie would have been as socially ambitious were it not for her mother's influence? Do you feel she was prematurely thrust into the social scene? If so, what were the consequences?
7. The author, Gioia Diliberto, says that she found John Singer Sargent's 1884 portrait of Madame X to be "extraordinarily modern." Discuss how the painting affects y see more

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About the Author

Gioia Diliberto
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Gioia Diliberto

Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, based on the life of Virginie Gautreau. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

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