When I first heard that there was going to be a novel based on the life of Victorine Meurent, the model who posed for Manet's Olympie, a painting that shocked the decadent Parisian society, I was looking forward to reading it. Over the last several years, I had the opportunity to expand my study of the Impressionist movement, and so anything to add more to my experience was a plus.
Recommend this product?
Or so I thought.
Debra Finerman's Victorine arrives in Paris as a young child of twelve, raised by two strict aunts who bully her shamelessly, and have decided to finally get rid of her -- by selling her into a brothel. Victorine, having been raised on the rough side of life, is still horrified by life on the street when she sees a former grand courtesan rooting in the garbage for food, the great beauty a ruin now. So begins our heroine's search for security no matter what it takes for her to get it. And security means money.
When the novel opens, Victorine is the mistress fo a well-to-do banker, but it's certainly not enough. When she meets Edouard Manet, they are attracted by each other, but Victorine is canny enough not to let him have her sexually, instead she poses for him, resulting in the infamous painting that has her a nude, gazing with defiance at the viewer. Through Victorine's eyes we meet other artists and writers, and she begins to collect other wealthier men into her circle, including a Rotheschild banker, and finally, the Duke de Lyon, a fabulously rich politician who becomes her means to enter the very cream of Parisian society.
Still at the center of it all is her relationship with Manet, a romance where they never touch, but the emotion is all there. We're treated to the dizzying days of Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie, war with the Germans, and finally the days of the Communards.
Victorine, for all of her potential as a character, is bloodlessly calculating here. Money really is the only thing she cares about, and how she gets it is callous, and doesn't create much sympathy for the reader. Throughout all of her dispair and mistakes, and wondering why she can't feel anything for her various lovers, I was left feeling nothing but contempt for her in return. She covets exquisite clothing, fine jewelry, elaborate houses, and behaves in pretty much a childish fashion throughout.
To make matters worse, the author Debra Finerman, has taken this story of an artistic revolution and turned it into a disgusting hack job. Most of the book is filled up with idle conversation, descriptions of clothing, episodic encounters between Victorine and others, and only in the last seventy or so pages does the book even get interesting. Most heinous of all, she displays an absolute lack of knowledge of the art world of the time -- Victorine is a combination of the real Victorine Meurent, and the Countess de Castiglione, Julia Stanhope-Morgan is based very loosely on Mary Cassatt, and the Duke de Lyon is based on the real Duke de Mornay. Paintings aren't given their titles, just very loose descriptions. Finally, Finerman doesn't mention other people who were very influental in Manet's life, including his brother Edmund, and fellow artist and model, Berthe Morisot. Instead, she seems to have spent an afternoon walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at the Impressionists gallery and stopped in at a travelling exhibition on the Countess de Castiglione and photography, and then tried to make a novel out of that.
There's the loosest of plots, no real depth or imagination here, nothing to catch the attention of artists interested in the world of creation, plenty of historical mistakes, and some of the dullest narrative around. It's just plain bad, and even with it just being under 300 pages, it's literary joke.
For a far more impressive and interesting read on the Impressionist movement, I would suggest Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party, where at least the author knows her topic and how to write characters that interest the reader.
The author tries to explain her methods and reasoning in a short author's note at the end, and a reader's guide for reader's groups is included, but why bother?
2007; Three Rivers Press
This is part of EpiWriMo offered up by our very own kamel622.
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