I Always Loved You
By: Robin Oliveira
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of Viking Adult via NetGalley
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.
I can’t remember when I first saw this title–might have been during one of my meanderings around GoodReads–but I remember thinking to myself to keep an eye out for it as it sounded really interesting. I was approved of an ARC of this title from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This book is available on 4 February 2014.
What can I say about this novel? It drew me in from the first page (followers on my Twitter and GoodReads may have read my flailings on how I immediately sympathised with Mary Cassatt’s thoughts and feelings). I absolutely loved the writing and the dialogue because so much of it was just poignant and/or striking. There’s so many memorable lines for me in this novel, I can’t even begin to choose which one I loved the most…
The story itself was really interesting. It chronicles Mary Cassatt’s years in Paris and her inclusion in the Impressionist circles through Edgar Vegas. It’s really interesting to read as Mary meets all of these major artists who are such notable figures in the Impressionist movement–Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas–as well as other figures like Emilie Zola and even Picasso gets a mention somewhere later on. I’m not terribly familiar with each of the painter’s biography so I don’t know much about their personalities but in this novel they are really distinct from one another, you can see how close these individuals are to each other, how much they respect each other, but also how tempers would likely fray and personalities clash with one another. But it’s such a vibrant community, it really felt like you were in the salons and the parties with these people, listening and watching them interact. It also kind of left me longing for a time when there were such groups and circles, discussing art and relying on each other for afeedback and support; there’s a camraderie here that was both informative and comforting.
The representation of the artist in this novel was also a major highlight. Each of the major artists mentioned above, whether the narrative was with them for a long period of time or not, have their own approach to their work. Much of Degas and Mary’s discussions has a lot to do with the artistic process, the techniques used, the colours and the style, the loneliness of it all. In fact, I love the way the author described and delved into the artistic process; it can be applicable to any creative work you pour your heart and your efforts into, really. It also touches on the overarching institution of art and the philosophies behind it that were at the forefront in Paris at the time. Degas for example is immensely hostile towards the Salon and its capacity to accept and reject work based on the standards that they laid out. He’s quite the rebel in this regard: after all, who really bears the right to say what is acceptable? Why should there be a governing body controlling the flow of creativity? It’s an interesting situation.
Over the course of the novel I grew to really care for the charactes, even the secondary, non-artist characters like Mary’s sister, Lydia. I’ve already mentioned how much I sympathised with Mary’s character and her aspiration to mkae good art and to work according to her own terms. Degas is a fascinating character in this novel, especially when it comes to his art; he’s tortured but not to Bronte-level of character torture. He’s clearly gifted and he has very particular views towards art (quite enlightened by the process and the medium, very understanding about what’s required of a person to really focus on the work) but he’s rather self-deprecating towards it. He can be also pretty hard on himself, never thinking his work is good enough, rather flighty when it comes to his projects. Degas and Mary’s relationship is very complex; it’s not straight-up romantic but there’s a sense that it really is a meeting of equals, of two creative and great minds more than anything else. At the best of times they relied and supported each other and their work. They also clash at times, either because of their differing personalities or perspectives, but they also make each other better. You want them to work it out and work it through but then, especially in the case of Degas, there’s the issue of whether you can truly balance it out between loving someone and focusing whole-heartedly on your craft. Degas didn’t think so but therein lies some of the conflict in the novel.
I Always Loved You thus also meditates on life and love. Can you have it all, like Berthe Morisot and her art and her child? Degas cares for Mary but then there’s his devotion to his craft; Mary too is very much focused on her art but believes there could be a balance, you can also love someone. Edouard Manet’s meditation on the course of his life was also very interesting, of missed chances and of what everything really comes down to in the end.
Overall I really enjoyed I Always Loved You; it’s an early favourite read for me for 2014. It did feel a little rushed in the last segment of the story; the fall-out between Degas and Mary could have been expanded on and had a few chapters because it felt a little more tacked on compared to the rest of the novel and the course of their story. Otherwise I felt really sad as I was reading the last part of the novel and everyone started passing away. Nonetheless I really enjoyed this title; it was informative, it was atmospheric and rich and contemplative in art and life. Readers who love reading about this time period and who love art will want to check this novel out–I highly recommend it!
And for further information about the painters mentioned (tried to remember as many of the major ones who graced this novel), please check out the following links:
- Mary Cassatt – The Complete Works
- Edgar Degas – The Complete Works
- Edouard Manet – The Complete Works
- Berthe Morisot
- Claude Monet – The Complete Works
- Camille Pissarro – The Complete Works
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir – The Complete Works
- Paul Cezanne – The Complete Works
- Gustave Caillebotte – The Complete Works