2008, Historical Fiction
Avon A, $13.95, 307 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061579122
For probably the millionth time, I just have to say that I am thrilled to see so many new historical fiction releases on shelves these days. I certainly hope this trend in publishing continues. Though I read nonfiction history, there is something about fiction that helps me to understand history better or at least to examine people and events in a different light. In With Violets, Elizabeth Robards take the documented facts of Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet's friendship and working relationship and imagines what may have passed between them. The historical record to some degree reflects that the two were friends, and there are some romantic hints in their correspondence, so the author takes this record and runs with it.
The book opens with Berthe and Edouard's initial meeting in the Louvre. Berthe, in her late 20s, has all but resigned herself to spinsterhood and finds fulfillment in her painting. A mutual acquaintance introduces her to Manet and, though other painters surround them, somehow Manet and Morisot have eyes only for each other. It is clear they are smitten. However, when Berthe and her family are invited to a soiree at the home of Edouard's mother, the infatuated painter learns one thing about Manet she wished were not true: He is married.
So begins Morisot's friendship with Manet. Both are talented artists who feed off one another in their creativity. Manet persuades Morisot to pose with two others in a painting and, depite the impediment of his marriage, a flirtation begins. From this point onward, Berthe faces a crucial choice and throughout the story, she wavers between her options. Will she follow her heart to Manet at all costs or will she respect his marriage and the expectations of society and allow herself to find happiness elsewhere?
Berthe's dilemma feels quite real and, by telling the story in the first person, the author captures her emotions well. I found Edouard more difficult to understand because, just as he sometimes masks his inner self to Berthe, it is also masked to the reader. There are tantalizing glimpses of the man behind the famous artist, though, and in the best parts of the book, one can see what draws Berthe to him. Though both main characters made choices that frustrated me at times, this somehow made them more into real people and less like distant historical figures.
In addition, the art of Morisot and Manet comes alive. In addition to descriptions of paintings such as Manet's notorious Olympia, the reader sees Manet and Morisot in the throes of creating some of their great masterworks. The descriptions of the creative process and of how the artist is perceived to be thinking of their subject make for interesting reading. As one reads of paintings in various stages of creation, it can be tempting to check art Web sites for images of the paintings described.
Another strength of the book lies in its depictions of Berthe's world. She does not act like a modern woman in fancy dress and even into her early thirties she is shown being chaperoned as a lady of her social class would have been. While her art allows her entrance into a world closed to most respectable women of the time, one can still see the restrictions of her station in life. However, the book tries to cover a seven-year span including war, the Commune of Paris, and the initial Impressionist exhibition and the relatively short length leads to the glossing over of some items. For instance, the late 1860s and the time of Berthe and Edouard's initial meetings get many pages while the Franco-Prussian War, in which the male artists of Morisot's circle were largely engaged in fighting, speeds by in a few short chapters. The history that is covered fascinates, but there should have been more of it. I felt like I was reading an epic that was missing some pages.
Still, even with those quibbles, With Violets slips open the door to a fascinating world. Though I have entered many versions of England in my reading, I have seen relatively little of France. The time of the Impressionists intrigued me, and I would certainly like to read more. For those who have not seen them, Berthe Morisot's paintings hang all over the world (ibiblio.org and Wikipedia both give some listings and information) - including a few at the National Gallery near me. I would definitely recommend seeing them in addition to reading this book.
-- Lynn Spencer
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