A mesmerizing tale of art and passion in Belle Époque France
As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet, Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness.
Rodin’s Lover brings to life the volatile love affair between one of the era’s greatest artists and a woman entwined in a tragic dilemma she cannot escape.
Right about this time last year, I read and loved Heather Webb's debut, Becoming Josephine, which made my list of the best books of 2014. Her Josephine was such an alluring, empathetic, and inspirational character, that I couldn't wait to see how Ms. Webb would bring Camille Claudel to life. I knew who Rodin was, but I knew nothing about Camille before reading this book. I love when historical fiction authors bring little-known women into the spotlight to shine alongside the men in their lives, whom history tends to remember better.
This book differs from Ms. Webb's first-person portrayal of Josephine in that it's told in alternating third-person points of view. At first I was surprised at the inclusion of Rodin's point of view, and I worried that it would take away from Camille's status as the star of the novel and make the story into more of a historical romance, and it does to an extent, but it also helps in that it gives us another view of Camille, and Rodin's experiences in the art community highlight the difficulties that even renowned artists of the time faced. I had no idea that the Paris art world in the late Victorian period was so political and cutthroat, and it was refreshing to glean insight into the business side of art, into all of the little behind-the-scenes details that no one thinks about when admiring the finished product. This world of cafes and ateliers and salons where artists worked and mingled and competed was fascinating.
What I struggled with most in reading this book was forming a connection with Camille herself. While Camille's disdain for the traditional role of women and her passion for sculpting are palpable, and I was compelled to admire her talent and her ambition, she increasingly became more and more unlikeable. Ms. Webb portrays her as a woman who has a hard time keeping friends for a number of reasons but mainly for her habit of lashing out in anger and spite to soothe her own feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. And she was so very cruel to Rodin at times, and irrational in her demands of him at others. Later in the book, some of this stems from her descent into mental illness and is a little more understandable.
On the other hand, and most unexpectedly, Rodin comes off as almost saintly. His devotion to Camille and all of his efforts on her behalf to help her achieve recognition and praise were noble, and his suffering and anguish at her treatment of him, and later, his helplessness in the face of her mental illness, was heartbreaking to watch. Even his loyalty to his long-time partner and mother of his child, Rose Beuret, which was a point of contention in his stormy relationship with Camille, was admirable. As the story went on, I began to find their relationship and Camille's antics tedious, so I can only imagine what it would have been like to actually live through it.
The book covers a long period of time, so naturally there are some gaps in the timeline of the story, but even so, I would have liked to read more about Camille after her relationship with Rodin ended. It seems the most tragic parts of her life were in later years, and they are not covered in this examination of her life. Overall, while I did not get swept away by Rodin's Lover as I did with Becoming Josephine, I'm still glad I was able to peek into the life of this pioneering artist and the man who loved her, and I think it will appeal to fans of women's fiction and art history.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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