Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review: Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

My first trip to Paris was a day trip from London.  I took an early train to Paris and then a late train back to London.  That first trip, it was pouring down rain, and I just saw the highlights - quick trip through the Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe.  But on the tour bus back to the train station, I was listening to the commentary and the guide said on your left, you'll see Rodin's Museum and Gardens.  So I looked and what I saw was so beautiful.  A couple of years later, when I returned to Paris - this time for a week - one of my first visits was to the Musee Rodin to get a better look at what I'd glimpsed that rainy day on the bus.  Now, anytime someone asks for suggestions of places to visit in Paris, I mention this small, but beautiful museum and the surrounding gardens.

Inside the Museum, along with Rodin's work, is the work of Camille Claudel, one of Rodin's students as well as his lover.

I've always been curious about this woman.  Passionate, unconventional and mentally unstable according to most stories.  But I know enough about history to know that a lot of women deemed mentally unstable and women who simply refused to conform to the idea of how a proper woman should behave.  Any woman who wants do something different, who wants to be more than a wife and a mother is at risk of being considered crazy.  Then again, a lot of artists are to some extent tormented by some form of mental illness.

I was looking forward to reading this book, hoping to learn more about her and her work and who she really was.  I suppose I should have guessed by the title that this would mostly be about her connection to Rodin, but I'd hoped it would be more.

While the story starts out about Camille, and her desire to be an artist, the focus eventually shifts to Rodin.  But I felt the story was told in very general terms.  For a relationship that is believed to have been so passionate, their story is told here in a very boring manner.  I felt nothing for this couple.  There are a few sentences hinting at Camille's mental illness, and descriptions of her bursts of temper, but it didn't feel very convincing.

This story focuses too much on Rodin, trying to claim that he loved Camille as much as she loved him, and that it was voices in her head that caused her to be so on and off again with him.  He was a man twice her age, with a long-time live in lover (also the mother of his son) and a reputation for bedding many women.  I find it highly doubtful to assume that he viewed Camille as anything more than another lover.  Once he realized her talent, he had no problem "borrowing" her ideas and enlisting her assistance in his own work.  Okay, that's my opinion.  I felt like this story glossed over all of that, trying to claim that had some sweet love affair, and even though there are mentions of Rodin stealing Camille's work, it's played off as something Camille over-reacted about.

I didn't like this book very much.  I had to force myself to finish it.  I don't feel as though I learned anything in this book that I'd not already learned from reading the placards at the Rodin Museum.  There are no details.  This being a novelization, I'd hope the author could at least make some details up.  But the story felt vague:  They saw each other, they wanted each other, they worked on their sculptures.  Camille heard a voice, she got very angry.  Rodin went back to his lover, but thought of Camille all the time.  

Even more disturbing though is the way this book tries to claim Camille's abortion was her mental breaking point.  If anything, the abortion was what saved her.  It was what prompted her to end her sexual relationship with Rodin, and what caused her to focus on her work and separate herself from Rodin.  She finally realized she didn't want to be tied to Rodin and certainly didn't want to be burdened with his child.  After splitting from Rodin, she actually did become somewhat successful and made a point of doing work that was very different from Rodin so she wouldn't simply be considered his talented student, but rather an artist in her own right.  It was years later that her family began to suspect she was mentally ill and had her committed.  The idea that she considered the abortion so devastating seems cliche to me and doesn't at all fit with what she wanted in her life.  She didn't want a husband and children, she easily could have had that, but she wanted to be a respected artist - she wanted to be more than Rodin's lover.  

I read this book hoping to learn more about Camille Claudel and Rodin, or at least find a passionate fictionalized version of their relationship.  This book wasn't very interesting or passionate
and I didn't learn anything new.

I received a review copy via NetGalley.

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