by Stephanie Cowell
From an early age, Claude Monet knew that he wanted to paint. He defies his father and refuses to carry on the family business, running instead to Paris to become a true artist. While there, he befriends other young men who will go on to become household names: Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Bazille, Manet and Cézanne. The painters band together against the academic establishment that refuses to admit their “sketchy” work into the Paris Salon, but without the Salon it’s hard to find patrons and keep food in the larder. But even as the artists struggle with poverty, Monet finds happiness in his work and in the beautiful Camille Doncieux, a stunning girl from a wealthy family. She is as enraptured by the artist as he is with her. She turns her back to her parents and friends to join Monet in poverty, confident that his art will see them to success. But as the years pass and Monet’s paintings remain unsold, the relationship is strained to the breaking point. Is the love between an artist and his muse strong enough to withstand the constant hardships?
Monet is a complicated man. Well, no – I take that back. He’s not. Monet wants to lose himself in a world of color and light, emerging only to bequeath his paintings on an admiring public. He was born to fulfill this purpose. It isn’t his fault that the world doesn’t appreciate that he’s trying to do something new and unique with his oil and canvas. He should never have to compromise his role as artist to do menial work that would earn money to feed his mistress and his child. This courage – or arrogance, depending on how you view it – makes Monet seem so obtuse and so oblivious to the suffering his actions cause for Camille that he really isn’t a sympathetic character. To be honest, he isn’t even likable. Even though I was supposed to be rooting for him and Camille, I just wanted her to Monet and return to her family because his uncompromising artistic vision would always come before her. I doubt this is the emotion the author wanted to inspire in her historical romance.
Camille herself never feels fleshed out. Even as she breaks free of the conventions of her class late 19th century Paris, she never really comes into herself. The view of her is always filtered through the eyes of Monet, and as the book goes on it becomes clear that in many fundamental ways, he has never bothered to look beyond the surface of Camille’s personality. It’s perfect for the artist who was so determined to capture the way light interacted with surfaces, but it makes for a tepid romance at best.
The standout character in the cast is the mysterious Frédéric Bazille, one of the Impressionist artists who shared his studio with Monet. It is Bazille who so dearly desires to keep the painters united together, in part because he can never fully commit himself to art. Unlike his friends, Bazille comes from a wealthy family – but his parents wish him to be a doctor, so painting can only ever be his hobby, not a career. He is the perfect foil for Monet, because he is willing to compromise in order to please everyone, something that Monet vehemently refuses to even consider. I often found myself wishing the book was about Bazille and his struggles instead.
All in all, it’s an OK novel. Just OK. I enjoyed the big group scenes when you get a sense of the camaraderie between the painters, but the glacial pacing and hollow romance between Claude and Camille really dragged.
3 out of 5 stars
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Camille, painted in 1866 by Claude Monet