Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review: Claude & Camille

Summary: Sometimes he dreamt he held her; that he would turn in bed and she would be there. But she was gone and he was old. Nearly seventy. Only cool paint met his fingers. “Ma très chère . . .” Darkness started to fall, dimming the paintings. He felt the crumpled letter in his pocket. “I loved you so,” he said. “I never would have had it turn out as it did. You were with all of us when we began, you gave us courage. These gardens at Giverny are for you but I’m old and you’re forever young and will never see them. . . .”

In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.

But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time.

His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.

But Camille had her own demons – secrets that Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.

A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude and Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order. -- Crown

Ever since I was in college and all the girls had Monet prints in their dorm rooms, I have been interested in Claude Monet's life and art. (I have a feeling that I'm dating myself!) So when I found out that there was a new historical fiction book based on his life called CLAUDE & CAMILLE by Stephanie Cowell, I knew I just had to read it. I actually found this book extremely interesting because I knew almost nothing about Monet and even less about the love of his life Camille.

I thought Ms. Cowell did a wonderful job of creating Claude's and Camille's story while also staying true to the known facts about his life. She wrote a very honest story about the man while also including enough juicy tidbits about his relationships to keep the reader interested. And since little was known about his love interest Camille, the author had a lot of freedom to create a very interesting character. In fact, that was one of my favorite things about this novel -- how complex she made Camille and Camille's relationship with Monet. As I read this book and learned more about Monet as a man, I wondered what type of woman would be willing to live in squalid conditions with no money while Monet attempted to establish himself as an artist. I feel as if the troubled Camille that Ms. Cowell created was an ideal companion for Monet, and I actually found myself believing her character and her relationship with Claude.

Another thing about his book that I really liked was how the author showed Monet's friendships with Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Manet. Before they became known as the Impressionists, these artists lived and painted together in a small apartment; and they supported each other as they changed the art world with their unique style of painting. I thought their friendships were portrayed as being very special, and I was surprised by how loyal they were to each other -- I guess I would have expected more competition and resentment. I also liked how Ms. Cowell chose to portray Monet's very complex relationship with Frederic Bazille.

While I enjoyed learning the story behind the ups and downs of Monet's career, I thought that CLAUDE & CAMILLE was at its essence a beautiful love story. And by that, I mean a love story on multiple levels - there was Claude's love of art, the love towards his children, and especially the love he had for Camille. Throughout Monet's early days as an artist, he definitely qualified as a struggling artist. Camille not only stayed with him throughout these difficult times, but she completely and utterly supported his artistic endeavors (and I can truly say that Monet was not an easy man to live with because his art was his priority.) In addition, both Claude and Camille seemed to suffer from bouts of depression and loneliness; yet their love for each other endured despite all of the challenges.

CLAUDE & CAMILLE was the first book that I've read by Stephanie Cowell, but I am definitely looking forward to reading more of her books. She has written a few other historical fiction novels including one about Mozart called MARRYING MOZART. It sounds terrific to me as it deals with four sisters who each fell in love with Mozart -- is that called a love pentagon? It is apparent to me that Ms. Cowell did a huge amount of research before setting out to write CLAUDE & CAMILLE, and I appreciated how she tells the reader what is factual versus what liberties she took with the story. If you'd like to learn more about the inspiration behind this novel, make sure you read this.

I think CLAUDE & CAMILLE would make for a very interesting book club discussion especially if your group enjoys historical fiction. I couldn't find a readers guide, but I'm not sure that you need one. The characters are extremely interesting and very well-developed, and my friends and I would have a great time dissecting their actions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include love, creativity, marriage, friendships, infidelity, parent/child relationships, mental illness, perseverance, and the definition of success.

Thanks to Diane Saarinen for allowing me to participate in this book tour and thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I just started a book and the author wrote "I took some liberties with the facts" but doesn't say what! So I really appreciate a book like this one that tells you. This sounds really interesting!

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about Monet, but this book sounds really interesting. I also appreciate it when authors tell you which parts of history they changed around.

bermudaonion said...

Y'all must have been smarter than we were in college - out posters and prints all had pop references - musicians, actors, etc.

I love impressionism (I guess that's why I love the Musee D'Orsay so much) so would probably enjoy reading about these authors too.

Heather said...

"As I read this book and learned more about Monet as a man, I wondered what type of woman would be willing to live in squalid conditions with no money while Monet attempted to establish himself as an artist."

Oooo I saw this somewhere else and it piqued my interested. This line from your review alone makes me desperate to read it. Great review Julie. The book sounds fantastic!

Jenny Girl said...

Monet is one of the first painters I appreciated it, so I will eventually read this book. Your review is lovely and gives me a lovely impression of theis book.
(ba-dum-bum) Seriously, your review is making me want to get this book immediately. Thanks Julie!

Darlene said...

Great review Julie. I'm glad you liked the book. I've got it coming up later this month.

Amused said...

This one sounds wonderful! I would love to know more about Monet, even if it's set in a fictional book. Thanks for turning me onto it!

Anna said...

I'm glad to hear that the author distinguishes between fact and fiction. Serena and I used to have the Monet prints on our dorm wall (right next to the Beatles posters!)...and now one is in our office at work. LOL

Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

The Monet posters have graduated from the college dorm and bedroom walls of my youth to my office walls! I remember staring at these posters for hours writing up poems...but I digress.

I really am looking forward to reading this book!