Author: Heather Webb
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / France / Paris / Artists / Love Affair / Mental Illness)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume (1/27/2015)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In late 19th century Paris, a young sculptor accepts tutelage with a famous sculptor, and both are inspired by love.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do, very much -- I believe the image is of Camille (or inspired by her portrait) and it's so striking in person!
I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Lynn Cullen, Erika Robuck
First line: Camille dropped to her knees in the mud.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.
Why did I get this book?: I'm a huge fan of Webb and was so intrigued by the subject of this one.
Review: Webb's second novel focuses on a less well known figure, French Belle Époque sculptor Camille Claudel, and this novel surpasses her first (which was pretty fabulous!).
Camille is a bit of a savant, a self-taught sculptor with immense talent and a matching ego. Driven to pursue her art, she receives tutoring in Paris from one of France's preeminent sculptors, but her family is split in their support of her passion. Camille's father supports her while her mother rages against the unorthodox behavior of her daughter. While her mother tries to arrange a marriage, Camille is instead drawn to her newest tutor, the much lauded Auguste Rodin.
Lest you fear this is just another hist fic focusing on a lady with a famous lover, let me reassure you this is a far more complicated, rich, and eventful story. Camille is a hard heroine to love: prickly, confident to the point of obnoxious, and single-minded. In Webb's hands, she isn't softened nor does she turn flat the moment she falls into her lover's arms.
In fact, Webb's emotional sensitivity is something I've come to admire in her books as the dramatic events unfold without veering into melodrama. Webb doesn't shy from the hard, heartbreaking parts of Camille's life (I'm being vague about these parts for those unfamiliar with Camille's story, but there's nothing fluffy here!) and intense moments are touched with humor, bittersweet sadness, or irony, making it impossible for this reader to shake Camille's story.
I sometimes find books about artists tricky; it can be hard to render into compelling narrative endeavors that depend on other senses. But Webb managed to evoke the tactile experience of sculpting as well as describing the various sculptures and pieces of art without sounding like a text book. I "saw" the works even without having to google them (although google I did!). I have to give a particular shout out to Joshua DeLillo, who sketched three of Camille's works for use in this novel. They look like photographs, they're so finely rendered, and were a welcome addition to the story.
This is the second novel I read since having my baby (and the second for 2015), and it was a knockout -- well worth stealing time to read. It's a fabulous read for those who enjoy biographical novels; I'm particularly reminded of Melanie Benjamin, who I also think takes shocking, notorious lives and renders them realistically, tenderly, and with empathy. Enjoy this one with espresso or cocoa over a snowy weekend.