Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet
by Stephanie Cowell
I confess … I completely picked up this book because of the cover.
(Admit it, you would have too.)
As one of the artists known as the Impressionists, Claude Monet’s paintings have become among the most recognized and best loved in the world. However, as Claude and Camille makes very clear, his success was definitely not of the overnight variety. Monet’s work was routinely dismissed and the success he did have came very late in his life.
Claude and Camille is a historical novel about the life of Monet and Camille Doncieux, who he met in a bookshop and who modeled for many of his now-well known paintings. The two fell in love and lived a life that can only be described as one that was solely dedicated to each other and Claude’s art.
Perpetually believing and declaring that he was on the verge of some great success, Claude was constantly penniless and often owed money to everyone and anyone. When he and Camille weren’t being evicted from one rented room after another, they were living with Claude’s passel of artist friends.
Ah, yes … the friends. These weren’t just any ordinary, run-of-the-mill friends. (At the time they were, because like Monet, they all were poor and spent days imploring passersby and patrons in restaurants for a chance to sketch them for a few francs.) These BFFs of Monet’s had names like Renoir, Pissaro, Degas, Cezanne, Bazille, and Manet.
Their interactions make for some of the strongest parts of Claude and Camille. I loved reading about this group, their back and forth banter, their steadfast support of and belief in one another. They were always a day late and a dollar short, always borrowing money from someone’s family member. They had grandiose plans for an independent exhibition of their collective work – which eventually did happen, but which took years to become more than a dream (again, due to the lack of money).
In some ways, I liked the relationship between the artists moreso than the one with Claude and Camille. Theirs was a love story, absolutely, but a frustrating one. At times, Claude was a little maddening; you wanted to shake the guy and tell him to man up and get a real job so Camille and his baby, Jean, would have a decent home and enough food on the table. (He often turned down “regular” jobs, such as working in his father’s nautical supply business, that would have provided a stable income.) Claude left Camille for months on several occasions. He was also, if the dialogue is any indication of his real personality, a bit prone to melodrama and haughtiness.
Camille wasn’t perfect either (she probably suffered from undiagnosed depression – who the hell could blame the poor woman?) and while she had the patience of a saint to put up with Claude’s dreams, you have to give her credit for believing in the guy when others would (and did) give up on him. Still, she did so at a price to herself, giving up on her own dreams of writing and being an actress.
(This is, of course, easy to say in 2010. Back in the mid-1800s, things were a bit different.)
I enjoyed Claude and Camille, but there was something – I can’t quite pinpoint what, exactly – that was a little flat. It might have been in the dialogue. It was certainly very interesting in terms of subject matter (especially in regards to the Impressionists’ lives and friendships) but as a novel, Claude and Camille didn’t rise to the level of being a stay-up-all-night type of captivating read. That said, if you’re a fan of Monet’s work or any of the Impressionists, and if you enjoy historical fiction and a good – but sad – love story, this is a satisfying read about one of the best known artists we may not have known this much about.
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copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.