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Claude and Camille Book Review: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell

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Capturing Love and Light—Monet’s “Pretty Woman,” a review of Stephanie Cowell’s 2010 book book cover Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet

I could say that Claude Monet’s artwork was my “muse” in writing this book review, but if I did I’d be committing word-crime, generalizing in such a way that diffuses the term’s emotive force and separates it from its mythical origins.  A true muse is an individual, rather than a political movement, product, or idea–  a being, nearly divine, who engenders deep, sometimes obsessive admiration in the heart of an artist.

A list of famous muses may include Patti Smith, Marilyn Monroe, Yoko Ono, Catherine Deneuve, and Georgia O’Keefe.  But most muses are enigmatic—a face in a painting, a “pretty woman” walking down a street.  Unforgettable yet obscure, they fascinate modern admirers, and from Mona Lisa to Flamine June, we are compelled to imagine them and postulate lives around them in the same way we yearn to solve a mystery.

Stephanie Cowell’s novel based on Claude Monet’s relationship with his model and eventual wife, Camille Doncieux Monet, gives voice to one such silent muse. Romantically entwined with Monet , she was the object of his passion and neglect in turns, but she’s transformed by Cowell from a spectre, a vague study in color and light, into a much, much more.

Cowell undertakes a daunting task in delivering a novel as artful and vivid as the brushstrokes of the painter who is her main subject.  Cowell ably brings Monet’s 19th century France to life with expert portrayal of behaviors, objects, and settings as though writing from first-hand experience.

[pullquote]Claude and Camille” has everything we want from historical fiction: an incredibly well-crafted atmosphere, historical relevance if not strict adherence, and a twisting plot with themes of love, loss, and friendship anyone can relate to.[/pullquote]Her product is, in a word, refreshing.  Unbelievably, modern media has made images of beautiful women quotidien, barely worthy of our notice anymore.  Their cleavage heaves in epic proportions on billboards; the private bits of their bare bodies are cleverly obfuscated on the covers of magazines (again, but it’s different this time, no really!).  Like the word “muse”, the romantic power is watered down.  But back when bathing costumes made of wool covered head to toe and first dates required chaperones– How titillating, how singular it must have been to stand as the object of attention, nude or clothed, in the pursuit of capturing beauty.  Oh, how we sympathize with Camille Doncieux, irresistably drawn to the passionate young painter.  What teenage girl wouldn’t want to be a muse and fall for the brooding genius?

If the young Claude Monet and Camille Doncieaux are caricatures, portrayed as too ardent and ingenuous in their dialogue to come across as unique personalities, then the intermittent direct quotations from the historical figures themselves will only further distract the reader from adhering to them.  But, as professional difficulties persist and Monet contemplates his own age, the increasing complexity of their lives seems to help Cowell ground the dialogue and set it in balance with the narrative.  “Claude and Camille” has everything we want from historical fiction: an incredibly well-crafted atmosphere, historical relevance if not strict adherence, and a twisting plot with themes of love, loss, and friendship anyone can relate to.

After “Claude and Camille”, you may never again confuse your Monets and Manets, and you may crave a visit to France, particularly to the locales mentioned in the novel such as Le Havre, Argenteuil, Giverny, and the cafés along the Boulevard des Capucines.  You may plan trips to the galleries that hold Monet’s work such as the National Gallery in D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in N.Y., and the Musee Marmottan Monet and the Musée d’Orsay; or you will at least do loads of searches for paintings by Monet (not to mention Bazille, Sisley, Renoir, and others) on Google images.

The novel takes place in an era just before the advent of Eastman’s camera, and through Cowell’s portrayal of Monet we feel the desire of the age to capture and keep a moment; to prolong the embrace of young lovers or the light of a sunset before it slips away.  After finishing the novel, I sat in traffic on an Orlando interstate staring at the grisly back bumper of the car just ahead of me.  Then I looked up into a Florida sky worthy of a Monet painting and immediately wanted to go back to Cowell’s world where, for a few days, I followed the brushstrokes of genius.  The desire to capture fleeting moments must have stayed with me and what a wonderful feeling that was.

I will miss Giverny, France, but on her website, Cowell says she’s now working on an intense love story about a 19th century writer.  Another obsessive genius and silent muse, perhaps?  And where will we be going?  That’s one period of time I hope is not prolonged…the wait for her next novel.

Thanks, Margo for sending Claude and Camille as an assignment!  — it was a treat and a perfect Travel Belle selection!


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