I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
In her new novel, I Always Loved You, Robin Oliveira takes the reader to Paris in the Belle Époque and tells the story of the tumultuous relationships between the radical impressionists, centering on Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. She’s a sensible American with an untapped talent; he’s the master she’s always admired, whose work is more than paint. When Degas, uncharacteristically bewitched, begs an introduction, their lives are catapulted into a swell of emotional upheaval, of joy and loss and the bewildering elusiveness of love. With his genius Degas will guide her to her own profound talent, helping her to see beyond the meager veil of commercialism to redefine her experience of art; but with his maddening unpredictability, his impossible conceit, and his infuriating severity, Mary may find herself at the brink of breaking, whether by spirit or heart. Central in the lives of Mary and Degas are the host of independently-minded artists who brought the impressionist movement to life: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, and Camille Pissaro. Also among their set are Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet, whose incorrigible love, barely muted by Berthe’s marriage to Édouard’s brother, mirrors the overwhelming and ultimately tragic trajectory of Mary and Degas’s relationship. Oliveira’s rendering of Paris in the late 1800s is a gorgeous, bittersweet love letter to an iconic and wildly romantic time in history, but nothing of I Always Loved You rings of a fairy tale. Instead, the author pursues the sadness and tumult of her characters’ relationships, unearthing the ugliness of love and the miserable beauty of what can be lost. For all this heaviness, though, Oliveira has brought to readers a surprisingly life-affirming novel, one that will test our allegiance to our way of thinking and open our minds, as her Degas would, to a different perspective. To a degree, one knows early on that this story won’t end with “Happily Ever After”, but in many ways I felt that Oliveira redefined the construct of a romantic story and greatly splintered the confines of a novel of relationships. The result of her efforts was, I thought, a collective masterpiece of engaging prose, larger-than-life characters, and profound emotional insight. And, of course, there was just so much breathtaking art. Oliveira has a special talent, I think, for describing art and the artistic process. One of the things I love about this slightly newer wave of biographical fiction, as it were, is how the historical element works so greatly in favor of the fictional element, literally bringing the world of the novel into the world of the reader. There was an extra excitement in recognizing some of the pieces as Degas, Cassatt and company were creating them, and additionally Oliveira has dedicated a page of her website to providing links to all of the works featured in the book.
The impressionist movement was my first artistic love at a very young age, and it was something more than charming to see these giants of the style, so long hidden to the viewer behind their paintings, come to life under Oliveira’s guidance. Being a work of historical fiction it’s of course important to remember that these likenesses are presented through the media of creative storytelling, a means of capturing the ups and downs of the emotional story, and in that endeavor not necessarily interested in achieving anything on the biographical end. Still, I fell in love with the world of Oliveira’s novel and I was beguiled by this collection of artists, each character a vibrant definition of the individual and unpredictable essence of the creative soul. Who is likable and who isn’t, who is a hero and who is a villain, none of those stringent margins are adhered to, and that’s one of the novel’s greatest charms. I felt every ounce of the characters’ joys and frustrations: Mary’s fury with Degas when he was impossible and her love for him when he was at his best; Berthe’s impossible fight between her duty to disengage herself from Manet’s love and her fervent desire to cling to it; Degas’s hopeless desperation to achieve perfection with his Little Dancer; Manet’s struggle between a broken heart and a body broken by disease, guarded only by the veneer of his own reputation. For me as a reader, all of this in a novel would’ve been enough; but there’s more to be had, more emotional ground which Oliveira intimately explores. Mary’s relationship with her family is a central and compelling point of the story, most especially her love for her perpetually ill sister, Lydia. The social extremes in the lives of artists are also on display when the creative minds behind neighboring and distant mediums collide amid the parties and cafes of Paris; Émile Zola is brought to life in the pages, as are numerous other luminaries of the age. Their squabbles and disagreements are as fascinating to watch unfold as the creative processes of their art, which says a great deal: observing the torturous ministrations of the artists in their craft make for some of the novels most arresting scenes, whether Mary is toiling over an unfinished canvas or Degas is obsessively lost to the realization of his dancer statue. It’s a testament to the talent of the artist of one medium – the writer – that she can so deeply draw us into the experience of another. With its finely researched detail and beautiful scope, I Always Loved You has the potential to be one of those rarely emotional experiences that readers won’t soon forget.