Claude and Camille (Cowell)

Claude & Camille
Stephanie Cowell, 2010
Crown Publishing
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307463210

In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.

But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet—a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time.

His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.

But Camille had her own demons—secrets that  Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.

A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude & Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Awards—American Book Award
Currently—lives in New York City

In her words
I was born in New York City to a family of artists and fell in love with Mozart, Shakespeare and historical fiction at an early age. I began printing stories in a black and white school notebook at about nine years old and in my teens wrote several short novels which remain in a dark box. I learned something though, because by twenty, I had twice won prizes in a national story contest.

Then I left writing for classical singing. I sang in many operas and appeared as an international balladeer; I formed a singing ensemble, a chamber opera company, and so on. The translation of a late Mozart opera returned me to writing once more and I now mostly sing while washing the dishes!

My first published novel was Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest. That work was followed by two other Elizabethan 17th-century novels: The Physician of London (American Book Award 1996) and The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare. In 2004, I returned to my musical background and wrote Marrying Mozart; it has been translated into seven languages and optioned for a movie.

I am married to poet and reiki practitioner Russell Clay and have two grown sons (one in computer systems design and one a filmmaker). I was born in New York City and am still living here, a short walk away from all the impressionist paintings at the Metropolitan Museum. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Historic verisimilitude cuddles with bodice-ripping fancy in this diverting fictional representation of the Impressionist maverick Claude Monet.... [T]he narrative derives more energy from Monet’s mercurial muse than from an account of his rocky ascent as he endures poverty, disappointment and disapproving parents.... The novel seems convincingly researched, even as it indulges a quaint notion of embryonic genius in which male artists fantasize about fame: “One day our paths will cross on one of the great boulevards or perhaps at the annual Salon. I will be famous then and she will arrive on the arm of her husband and lower her eyes when she sees me.”
Jan Stuart - New York Times

Cowell is nothing short of masterful in writing about Claude Monet’s life and love.... An enthralling story, beautifully told.
Boston Globe

Once again the acclaimed novelist Stephanie Cowell deftly takes us into the world of the classical arts with her well researched and beautifully written novel of historical fiction, Claude & Camille. (5 Stars.)
LA Times Book Examiner

Behind every great artist stands a woman driving him to inspiration, aspiration, and desperation, according to Cowell (Marrying Mozart), who bases her latest novel about an artist and his muse on the life of Claude Monet. Beautiful bourgeoise Camille Doncieux leaves her family and fiancé for Monet, whom Cowell depicts early on as a rebellious young man trying to capture in his paintings fleeting moments of color and light before he matures into the troubled genius whose talent exceeds his income. In an art world resistant to change, Camille remains Monet's great love as he and fellow unknowns Renoir, Pissarro, and Bazille struggle to make ends meet, but, eventually, parenthood, financial pressure, long separations, career frustrations, and romantic distractions take their toll, and even after Monet finally achieves commercial success, the couple still faces considerable difficulty. While glimpses of great men at work make absorbing reading, it's Camille who gives this story its heart. A convincing narrative about how masterpieces are created and a detailed portrait of a complex couple, Cowell's novel suggests that a fabulous, if flawed, love is the source of both the beauty and sadness of Monet's art.
Publishers Weekly

One winter's day, a young, frustrated Claude Monet waits for a train on his way to boot camp; through the crowd, he spies a lovely young woman in tears. Captivated, he sketches her face before she disappears with her mother and sister into the bustle of the station. A few years later, he has not forgotten the girl's beauty and is stunned to meet her again in a Paris bookshop. Her name is Camille Doniceaux, and she is destined to become Monet's first wife and greatest muse. Moving through war, illness, prosperity, and poverty, Cowell (Marrying Mozart) writes the couple's love story with an eye for perspective as skilled as any painter's. By novel's end, readers are left with not only the satisfying drama of life among the Impressionists but also a greater appreciation for Monet's art and the driving bforces behind it. Verdict: Though the plot occasionally cries out for greater detail, the story of [a] complex and engrossing relationship compensates.... Rich, artsy read. —Leigh Wright, Bridgewater, NJ
Library Journal

Fleshing out the artist’s biographical outline with fresh imagery, well-paced dramatic scenes and carefully calculated dialogue, Cowell presents a vivid portrait of Monet’s remarkable career. She writes with intelligence and reverence for her subject matter, providing a rich exploration of the points at which life and art converged for one of history’s greatest painters. —Carol Haggas

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Claude and Camille:

1. Claude Monet first glimpses Camille Doncieux at a train station...and quickly sketches her. What initially attracts him to her? And in what way does she become his muse? (What does it mean to become someone's "muse"?)

2. How does Stephanie Cowell present her two main characters, Claude and Camille? Are they fleshed out as real people, emotionally and psychologically complex? Or are they drawn more superficially? How would you describe the two individuals as the author portrays them?

3. What is at stake for Camille in defying her parents and choosing to live openly with Claude Monet? Do you think she realizes how difficult her life will become as the wife of an unknown young artist? If she had known, do you think she would have changed her mind? Would you have taken the risks she does?

4. What takes priority in Claude's life—his wife or his career? What do you make of his choice of priorities? Does an artist have a choice?

5. What is the nature of Claude and Camille's relationship? How do they nearly destroy one another...and yet manage to remain together? In one unhappy scene, Claude tells Camille to take their son and leave him. "Minou, all the things you thought about me, all the bright, wonderful things, are wrong." What does he mean? Could that passage be true of any marriage?

6. How familiar were you with the Impressionists and their paintings before reading this novel? What have you learned about impressionism as a movement? What is "Impressionism," and how does it differ from the accepted painting style of the 19th-century art world? Why was Impressionism so disparaged by its contemporary critics?

7. Talk about the other Impressionist painters, the group of artists who meet, along with Monet, in the cafes around Paris. How do they inspire and support one another? What do they learn from each other. What do you make of Frederic Bazille—what role does he play in Monet's life?

8. What do you make of the book's opening quotation by Monet:

I had so much fire in me and so many plans. I always want the impossible. Take clear water with grass waving at the bottom. It's wonderful to look at, but to try and paint it is enough to make one insane.

What does that statement suggest about the artistic endeavor and the nature of art? Can the same be said regarding a writer or musician—or any artist?

9. Monet and company never realized the full worth of their creations. How does it make you feel that the price of Monet's paintings—the paintings of all the impressionists—are now high up in the stratosphere?

10. Did you enjoy the framing of the novel, with Claude Monet looking back on his life from the vantage of an older man? Or did the time frames confuse you and disrupt the narrative flow? Why might Cowell have structured her novel the way she did?

11. Have you read other historical novels about the lives of painters—Susan Vreeland's The Luncheon of the Boating Party...or Tracy Chevalier's The Girl with the Pearl Earring? If so, how does this book compare to the others?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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