Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rodin's Lover: A Book Review

I received this book through Penguin's First to Read program:

Camille Claudel was a remarkable artist who had the great misfortune to live in a time when a woman had no other life than that of wife and mother. Even the title of Heather Webb’s novel reduces the tormented artist to society’s view of her place in the world.

RODIN'S LOVER is a fictional treatise of the relationship between Camille Claudel, who studied under Rodin, and the famed sculptor. The sexual tension crackles as the headstrong young girl pursues her art with passion while the old master lusts after youth and beauty. Claudel must contend not only with her own raging hormones but with a mother who wholeheartedly disapproves of a daughter doing anything outside of the norm.

The reader feels Claudel’s frustration as her art is rejected because it was created by a woman. Ms. Webb paints Rodin as a weak man who ultimately failed his lover, oblivious to the impossibility of defying French society while pursuing its acclaim for himself.

Reading the novel was a bit of a slog, a march through bloated prose. A single description of Rodin’s hair color would have sufficed, instead of the numerous references to auburn, rusty, ginger et al. Superfluous adjectives abound, usually color references. These are artists as characters, of course, but for those who worked in sculpture it was a rather colorless world of marble, plaster or clay. Often the dialogue devolved into modern speech patterns that landed hard on the ear. Many times the prose felt forced, as if the author was trying to prettify things that were well-written without the added verbiage.

Those looking for a more nuanced view of Camille Claudel’s mental state, or even a bold approach that could explain her reported insanity as the suppositions of a stifling society, will not find that here. The novel is well worth reading nonetheless, but the historical context of Claudel’s battles against misogyny is somewhat lacking. Was she put away in a lunatic asylum because she was mad, or was she another of the many inconvenient women who tried to break the mold and were instead broken by those who fashioned the mold?

In the end, was her fate sealed like the Irish women who were locked up in Magdalene laundries to hide them away from a world that would not tolerate any woman achieving? The novel does not examine other avenues, relying instead on older historical narratives that were written by those who saw Claudel as a madwoman, rather than someone driven to the brink by complete and total rejection.

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