The Man in the Red Coat

Knopf. Feb. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780525658771. $26.95. MED
Award-winning author Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) aims to tell the life story of Samuel Pozzi (1846–1918), a French surgeon who transformed gynecology and wrote an internationally renowned textbook on the emerging field. Because of the social circles in which Pozzi traveled, he became the subject of one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous portraits—hence this book’s title. This is much more than a biography, however; it is a kaleidoscopic journey through 19th-century Paris. The narrative is often stream of consciousness by an author who clearly sees his subject as a hero. Pozzi was a freethinker “on the right side of history,” Barnes argues. Known for associating with a host of celebrities, including Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt, Pozzi had a complicated private life and a reputation as a seducer who exploited many of the same women he tried to help, ultimately being assassinated by one of his own patients. In telling Pozzi’s story, Barnes asks complex questions about morality, and how we should judge the actors of the past.
VERDICT Scholars may laud this work’s brilliance, but others might find it a difficult read. For serious students of French history or the history of medicine and sexuality.
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