In "My Name Is is Mary Sutter," Robin Oliveira pulled readers into the life of a daring Civil War-era woman who dreamed of becoming a surgeon. Oliveira's "I Always Loved You" is the story of another extraordinary Mary — the painter Mary Cassatt.
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The arts flourished during France's La Belle Époque (Beautiful Era), the time in which Cassatt made her name as a gifted artist. The period began in the early 1870s and ended with the beginning of World War I. Recent books and movies have transported us to this artful era also known as Paris' "Golden Age." In Woody Allen's time-traveling romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris," for example, Pablo Picasso's mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard) goes back in time to Belle Époque Paris, where she declares, "This is the greatest, most beautiful era Paris has ever known."
Oliveira perfectly evokes the era's beauty and art in "I Always Loved You," but don't be fooled by this somewhat generic title. (You'll understand its meaning by book's end.) There's nothing bland about the novel's painterly prose or storyline. The novelist's illuminating portrayals of the inner lives of artists — Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet — are beautifully colored and as richly detailed as the paintings for which they are celebrated.
"I Always Loved You," in fact, is a name-droppers' paradise. Abigail May Alcott, Émile Zola, Claude Monet and others stroll the boulevards and populate the salons of Oliveira's Paris.
Cassatt, an American painter and printmaker, lived most of her adult life in Paris. She met Degas in the 1870s. Little is known about their relationship except for the fact that Cassatt burned all the letters Degas wrote to her, and after his death she collected and burned all the letters she had sent to him. For Oliveira, gaps in their personal history are an opportunity to exercise her imagination.
With creative aplomb she captures the artists' passion for the Impressionism movement and their scorning of conventional academic art for new techniques. Cassatt, like other Impressionists, Oliveira writes, was "rendering form by indicating it with color rather than establishing it with line, of lightening her brush strokes and palette, of abandoning the formal for the informal."
Combining in-depth research with an ability to describe the complexities of the creative human spirit, Oliveira captures the passion and determination of artists who soldiered on despite being ridiculed as "idiot rebels" and bottom feeders of the art world. She vividly portrays the angst, frustration and disappointments that, despite their genius, were part of their creative process.
At one point in the novel Cassatt tells Degas that his extraordinary paintings look effortless, and he explodes with anger. "What do you think? That this is easy for me? … It's an insult for you to think … I do not have to earn every painting, every print, every drawing I produce."
In another scene, Cassatt struggles to begin a painting, "agonizing over tone and hue, brush stroke and subject, perspective and line." She eventually finds her creative power in gorgeously rendered portraits of women and children. Oliveira brings to life the process of painting "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair," one of Cassatt's signature works.
Some of the most beautifully written scenes in the novel detail Degas' use of the "petit rats" (young ballerinas in training) as models for his paintings and the celebrated mixed-media sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen." With uncanny insight into an artist's struggle for perfection, Oliveira describes him contemplating the dancers' musculature and skin color in the hope of re-creating them. "Her skin was luminous," Oliveira writes of one young dancer as Degas examines her legs. "Her flesh reflected every color: pink, yellow, and, surprisingly, cerulean, though he also detected a hint of olive and orange."
It's not known if Cassatt and Degas were involved in a physical love affair, and Oliveira focuses more intensely on the emotional relationship they shared. Though she evokes physical attraction and describes their first kiss (more than halfway through the novel) as blocking out everything but "the roar of breath and heartbeat," Oliveira makes art, not intimacy, their most profound mutual obsession. Art, Oliveira seems to say, must trump all other aspects of their lives.
Reimagining the lives of artists and their works makes for interesting reading, and modern novelists are passionate about the genre, which has been enriched by Tracy Chevalier ("Girl With a Pearl Earring"), Susan Vreeland ("Luncheon of the Boating Party") and Cathy Marie Buchanan ("The Painted Girls"). "I Always Loved You" is a most worthy addition.
Carol Memmott has reviewed for USA Today and People.
"I Always Loved You"
By Robin Oliveira, Viking, 352 pages, $27.95
Oliveira will appear at 7 p.m., Feb. 10 at Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville, andersonsbookshop.com.Copyright © 2015, CT Now