Sunday, October 16, 2011

REVIEW: Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell

Claude and Camille tells the story of artist Claude Monet in the early years of his career and the love he shared with with his first wife and muse Camille Doncieux.  Occasionally we flash back to an older Claude who reflects on his life as an artist and with his love Camille. We meet Claude as a young man struggling with his need to paint versus his father's wishes to take over the family visit.  He knows art is his love but struggles internally with whether he is good enough. As we learn, he is a perfectionist who frequently scraps paintings he worked on for months if they don't meet his standards. Claude convinces his father to give him a shot at going to Paris and making it as a painter.  He meets up with fellow struggling artists Bazille, Pisarro, Renoir and Cezanne who together form the fledgling impressionist movement.  He also meets Camille whom he falls in love with over the course of painting her for his Girl in a Green Dress painting, the first to of his to gain recognition.  The novel covers the next five years as Claude and his bohemian contemporaries attempt to make it in the fickle Paris art world and as Camille gives up all for her love of Claude to struggle alongside them in poverty.

The book is best when it is addressing Claude's inner struggles when creating his masterpieces.  I love the Impressionists so I really enjoyed the descriptions of the various paintings and the difficulties he faced while creating them.  Money was a frequent issue throughout the novel as the painters all lived together at some point and as Claude and Camille moved out on their own at times they were barely surviving.  We also got to see the temperamental side of Claude as he would question his abilities and sometimes run away from Camille and his friends for months at a time to focus on his art and because he simply could not deal with the situation caused by his failures.  The touching friendship Claude also shared with Bazille was a high point in this  book as well.  This is the one person besides Camille who constantly supported Claude in his endeavors no matter how low of a point he reached.

The love story which was supposed to be the whole focal point of the book fell a little flat for me though.  It becomes obvious that Camille is dealing with mental illness and Claude can be so selfish and disagreeable at points that it was hard to root for his success.  Instead of a love story a la Elizabeth and Darcy or Noah and Allie in the Notebook, here we get a volatile and dysfunctional relationship more reminiscent of Sammi and Ron on The Jersey Shore. (Never thought I would make a Jersey Shore reference in a historical fiction review, but there it is).  I found myself thinking at several points that is was obvious they loved each other but it wasn't a healthy kind of love and why were they together?  Also I wished for a little bit more on all the characters.  Of all of them I think Claude was the best developed but I would have liked to see more development of the others, especially the other impressionists.

Overall, I liked the book but Monet is a fabulous artist and when I finished I didn't feel like I had the complete picture.  I am definitely curious to read more about the Impressionists though!

 This book is from my own personal library

And just for fun-some painting by Monet mentioned in Claude & Camille:

Girl in a Green Dress

Camille and Jean on a Hill

The Picnic
Camille on her Death Bed

And a couple of the water lilies:

water lilies
water lily pond

1 comment:

  1. Great review - I read this book right around when it came out - so my thoughts aren't too fresh - but I remember loving it. Yeah their relationship is dysfunctional, but so are many today. I have enjoyed all of the art fiction books I have read so far, and this was no different. Great review.