Friday, April 16, 2010

A Review of Stephanie Cowell's CLAUDE AND CAMILLE

By Kim

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

In the mid nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiates the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.

But once there, he was confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. Except there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group who together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and who supported one another through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace their lively Bohemian life.

His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet – and believed in his work – even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.

But Camille had her own demons – secrets that Monet could never penetrate, including one that, when eventually revealed, would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. Although Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.

A vividly rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, CLAUDE AND CAMILLE, is above all, a love story of the highest romantic order.

About Stephanie Cowell (from the book jacket):

Stephanie is the author of Nicolas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest; The Physician of London (American book Award, 1996); and The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare. She is also the author of Marrying Mozart, which was translated into seven languages and has been optioned for a movie.


Normally I can breeze through a 330 page novel in an afternoon. CLAUDE AND CAMILLE took me five days. Like a Monet painting, I wanted to linger with it, to savor the composition, the colors, the emotions within. That Stephanie Cowell was raised by and around artists is evident from both the lush, visual imagery and the conversations between Monet and his contemporaries. She writes as a painter paints. A sensitive reader will, in turn, read in the manner of an art lover gazing upon a canvas.

Even if you don’t love art, you will be moved.

The bond between the two protagonists is so consuming I physically ached for them. I rejoiced in their triumphs, wept with them in their despair, and forgave them their trespasses. Camille may have been Monet’s muse, but there would be no water lily paintings today if it weren’t also for the love and devotion of Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet and Renoir. The power of friendship between these men can not be discounted.

Until recently, the only images I had seen of Claude Monet were photographs of an old man in his garden at Giverny. That man appears in the book, though a much younger Claude is at the forefront. On Stephanie Cowell’s website, you can see a stunning portrait of Monet as he would have appeared when he met Camille Doncieux. I confess to having a bit of a crush on him before even opening the book. After hearing his voice so vividly in my head for over 300 pages he’s flesh and blood to me; a loving, moody and virile man. If I were an upper-class Parisian girl with a stuffy fiancĂ©, I’d be tempted to throw it all away for him, too.

I considered skimming a brief biography of Monet in between reading sessions, but refrained, and I urge anyone reading the book to do the same. You will only find facts about Monet there. Cowell offers something far richer; a glimpse into the artist’s soul.

I don’t advise reading the last thirty pages in public. Have tissues handy.

Today, I will visit the Dallas Museum of Art to see an exhibit called The Lens of Impressionism. I have already warned my companion that if she finds me lingering in front of certain Monet canvases she should forgive me the tears that will surely flow. Thanks to CLAUDE AND CAMILLE, part of me will always feel as though I stood beside Monet, watching him paint the Normandy shore.

CLAUDE AND CAMILLE is available at bookstores throughout the United States and Canada. You can also purchase it here at

Author and book cover images were taken from the author's website. Author photo by Russell Clay.


  1. Jamie McPhail16 April, 2010

    Your book review makes me want to go read it! Great job!

  2. You won't regret it, Jamie!

  3. Liked this very much and am going to have to go get the book! Good job!

  4. Lorna Ferguson19 April, 2010

    This is so good, I would run out and buy it if I could, right now! Of course, reviewing a novel about a painter with a love story is most apropos, no? :-) Lorna

  5. Lorna, I admit that was what initially drew me to the book. Thankfully, the love story in Claude and Camille is very different from that in The Oak Lovers.

    C&C will be available in Canada when you return home. You won't regret buying it.

  6. Excellent review, Kim. Sure doesn't come across as your first. Can't wait to read the book.

  7. Wonderful review, Kim. Certainly doesn't come across as your first. Can't wait to read Claude and Camille.

  8. Cynthia Stuart28 May, 2010

    I so enjoyed the Impressionism exhibit after reading Claude & Camille - I'm recommending that book to everyone!!!


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