New Review: Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

Title:  Rodin’s Lover
Author:  Heather Webb (Becoming Josephine)
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 1/27/2015
Pages: 320
How Acquired:  Through Publisher

What it’s about:  As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet, Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness.

My thoughts:   I initially had trepidations about reading this book. I did a great deal of research on Camille Claudel for the chapter that I wrote in Scandalous Women, and I feel a bit proprietary about her. She was one of several women that I was just obsessed with.  I related to her struggle to be an independent artist, to forge a separate artistic identity from the man that she loved passionately. Her mental breakdown is heartbreaking.  Was she schizophrenic, bi-polar? Or was she even mentally ill at all are just some of the questions that come up when you read about the life of Camille Claudel. I wondered if a single novel could capture the complexity of this tormented genius.  And a genius she was.  All you have to do is look at the photos of her sculptures on line to see her amazing talent.

I’m happy to report that Rodin’s Lover calmed all my fears.  Heather Webb miraculously brings to life the volatile love affair between Rodin, arguably one of the era’s greatest artists and Camille Claudel.  When we first meet Camille, she is eighteen years old and bursting with talent.  Her one aim is to escape her provincial village and become one of the greatest sculptors of all time.  But from the very beginning Camille has to fight tooth and nail to develop her talent.  While her father believes that she will one day bring glory to the family name, her mother believes that Camille is unnatural for wanting to pursue art instead of marriage and children.  When an opportunity arises for Camille to study in Paris, her father insists that they move to Paris.
Camille struggles with feelings of loneliness, her devotion to her sculpture has left her with few social skills. Although she shares a studio with two other female students, Camille knows that unlike her, they will eventually marry and give up sculpting.  We don’t really get to see any of Camille’s relationship with her sister Louise, she’s something of a cipher in the book. Her most complex relationship, in a way, is not with Rodin but with her brother Paul.  Both are artists, Paul longs to be a writer. But while Paul is willing to compromise, taking a job in the diplomatic corps while writing on the side, Camille refuses to even countenance taking on pupils.  Even though the money would go a long way towards paying her bills. While Paul finds solace in religion, Camille’s religion is her sculpture. It's what she holds on to, even in her darkest hours.

But then she meets Auguste Rodin. She tries to fight her undeniable attraction to him but she can't ultimately. She senses immediately that their passion will consume them.  Camille believes that she is just as talented as Rodin, and that she will one day to etch her name in history despite society's belief that women can't be artists. However, her ambition and her need to forge an independent identity soon comes between them. And the dark voices in Camille's head grow louder with each passing day,  threatening her ability to work.

Webb’s writing is flawless.  She gets under Camille’s skin, refusing to shy away from the more negative aspects of her personality, her stubbornness, her jealously and her ego. There were times when I was reading the novel that I wanted to shake Camille. In many ways, Camille was her own worst enemy.  Webb gives the reader a glimpse into constant sexism that female artists faced in the 19th Century, particularly those artists like Camille who refused to limit themselves to scenes of domestic life.  There is a scene late in the book when Rodin and Camille have reunited after a short break when they attend a dinner where they run into one of Rodin’s frenemies who makes it clear that he would love to take Rodin’s place.

Then there is the matter of Rodin’s long-term relationship with Rose Beuret, the mother of his only child.  Despite his love for Camille, he cannot bring himself to break it off with Rose. Camille cannot hide her jealously of Rose. She wants Rodin all to herself.  The book is told through both Camille and Rodin’s point of view which allows the reader to see Camille through someone else’s eyes. She’s particularly good at detailing the struggle that Rodin has between the two women in his life.  Rose, who has been with him since the beginning, and Camille, his passionate muse. Webb also adroitly illustrates the personal toll of being driven by great ambition. Despite Camille’s successes, she’s constantly compared to Rodin, the sensuality of her work which is unheard of in most female artists, costs her commissions. She struggles to maintain her own identity, to not let herself be submerged in Rodin’s.  Despite Rodin’s successes, he still struggles to get his vision across without compromising too much.

Anyone who is interested in la Belle Époque Paris will find much to enjoy in Rodin’s Lover.  I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that the love story doesn't end happily for many reasons. There is not false moment in this novel, a moment that I could have pointed to as out of character for what I know of Camille from my own research. Unlike the movie Camille Claudel, Webb never blames Rodin for Camille's misfortunes. You never get the sense that he's actively using her. In away, they are using each other but not in a negative way.  There are hints in the book that Camille may have inherited her mental instability from her mother. Webb builds Camille's madness slowly, from just little things like her uncontrollable temper and her jealously, eventually escalating to paranoia and the voice inside her head. In the end, this book is heart-breaking in it's portrayal of one of the art history's most fascinating and complex women.


Megan said…
Am currently enjoying your "Scandalous Women" loaned to me by a friend who knows how much I love history/biography. Glad to see you have a blog I can follow.

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