Friday, April 4, 2014

A Review of Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You

By Kim

About I Always Loved You (from the book jacket):

The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War 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 imploring 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 live changes forever. Years later she will learn that he begged 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.

Photo by Deborah Downes
About Robin Oliveira (from the book jacket):

Robin Oliveira is the New York Times bestselling author of My Name is Mary Sutter. She holds a BA in Russian and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow. She received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is also a registered nurse, specializing in critical care. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

My Review:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo says it all. That’s my copy of I Always Loved You. Each sticker represents a passage of extreme brilliance, one that I likely read over two or three times before marking the spot and continuing on. You can’t see all of them, by any means.

I knew from the first page that this was a novel that would stay with me well after I finished it. When I came to this passage on page 43, after swallowing a lump of writer’s envy, the book shot into my top ten books of all time:

“Mary thought he might as well have said he had seen her at her bath, had seen the imperfections of her figure, had spied the most personal things about her. Instead, he was undressing her mind and rummaging around in the pleats and folds of her brain, a voyeurism more intimately invasive than any physical violation would have been.”

This passage was taken from the scene where Mary Cassatt first meets Edgar Degas. That tired old cliché about being able to cut the sexual tension with a knife does no justice to Oliveira’s portrayal of their relationship. In this case, you can’t chop through the tension with an ax. Every glance, every touch, nearly every word exchanged between the two is charged. The scenes where one or the other creates art in presence of the other are especially sensual.

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of the Impressionists to enjoy I Always Loved You, it will add a further layer of tension if you do. Any love story involving Edgar Degas could not be conventional in scope and will not involve a happily ever after unless the author takes major liberties with history, which Oliveira does not. What she does do, brilliantly, is find the story hiding in a gap of known history. After Degas’ death, why did Mary Cassatt search his apartment for her letters to him? Why did she burn she burn both sides of the correspondence when she sensed her own end was near?

Interwoven into the novel is a second, yet equally doomed, love story between painters Édouard Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot. Some reviewers thought this story detracted from the first, but I disagree. I believe it enhanced readers’ understanding of the societal constraints of the time and served as an interesting foil to the Degas/Cassatt plot line.

I made the mistake of reading the ending of I Always Loved You at a local Starbucks, mentally cursing my eyes for clouding up (much like Degas’) and preventing me from reading easily. It wasn't until I closed the book that I fully realized the “cloud” was tears. On my way out, the barista asked what book I had been reading because she wanted a copy.

I Always Loved You is literary historical fiction at its best. Highly recommended.

Have you read this novel? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...