Review: I Always Loved You

Saturday, February 8, 2014

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A novel of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’s great romance from the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter

The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is begging her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever. Years later she will learn that he had begged for the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships. In I Always Loved You, Robin Oliveira brilliantly re-creates the irresistible world of Belle Époque Paris, writing with grace and uncommon insight into the passion and foibles of the human heart. (from Amazon)

It's a testament to the power of this story and the conviction of Robin Oliveira's writing that I'm able to look back and review this book almost six months after reading it. Oliveira's first novel - My Name is Mary Sutter - is on my list of all-time favorite historical novels so when I saw that her follow-up book looked at one of my favorite times and places in history (the Belle Epoque Paris of the Impressionists), I was beyond excited. 

I've been disappointed by a lot of historical novels lately - they either seemed to lack ambition or would have been better served by a focused editor's eye. I Always Loved You is the exact opposite - a considered work of art in its own right that looks at the twisted demands of art, family and love and that brings late 19th century Paris to life. 

The novel is beautiful in its simplicity - a short opening chapter that introduces the reader to an older Mary Cassatt then moves seamlessly into two stories based on the real lives of the small, interwoven group of men and women who would become known as the Impressionists. The main story focuses on the artistic and emotional development of Mary Cassatt, one of the few female painters in the group. In a richly detailed third-person narrative, we're brought close in to the daily frustrations of an artist at a critical juncture in her working life, that time when a painter or a writer or a musician knows enough to know that they have so much more to learn. At this moment, she meets Edgar Degas and begins an acquaintance that shifts and grows and fractures with time, defying categorization but always influencing her artistic development in unexpected ways. 
A secondary plot, exploring the love triangle between Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Moirsot throws Mary and Edgar's relationship into relief, providing perspective and a deep thread of melancholy through the story. 

Some historical fiction readers may find the gradual development of personalities and relationships too slow and lacking in the more dramatic narrative twists and turns that mark the genre - I found the difference refreshing. Despite my excitement, I found myself reading this one slowly and that it took time for me to develop an appreciation for the unusual rhythms of the story generated by the short (4-6 page) chapters. 

I rarely buy books after checking them out of the library or receiving e-galley copies. But there are some cases when I want to support the author and in some small way thank them for working for years to craft a story that has brought me so much joy. I'm looking forward to returning to I Always Loved You again and again as the years go by. 

Source: Advance e-galley from the publisher for review

1 comment:

Carol Bodensteiner said...

I'm a big fan of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. I've read non-fiction books about them and this sounds like a fictional approach I'd enjoy. Thanks.

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