I Always Loved You: A Novel. Robin Oliveira. Viking Adult. February 2014. 352 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780670785797.
Mary Cassat has been in Paris studying art but now has to decide whether to stay or return to Philadelphia in America to assume a more staid life, waiting to be married and perhaps painting a canvas now and then. The latter is not appealing and yet is because of her disappointment with her own artistic style. This feeling of malaise has two sources, her father Robert’s incessant criticism and negativity and the rejection of one of her paintings by the Paris Salon where exhibits of famous artists are accepted and displayed yearly. However, Mary’s perspective is about to dramatically change when she is introduced to the Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas.
The essence of the relationship between the two artists can best be described as mercurial with passions flaring between deep respect and love and scornful arguments laced with sarcastic innuendos. Beyond this mental and emotional essence, however, was the passion that drove both of them to learn to “see” in a realistic way and to convey that onto the canvas. Mary was then invited to join the new group of artists who were painting in the new style called “Impressionism,” a name Degas despised as he wanted to be known as a realist, not an Impressionist. They then began to exhibit their newly stylized paintings in their own yearly showing. The reactions from the critics was absolutely scathing and Degas tried to warn Mary about the public reception her art works would receive, a fact later to be woefully true and overwhelming to Mary’s artistic and emotional sensibilities. This, it most powerfully says, is what forces an artist to decide whether he or she cares more for one’s art or public accreditation via great reviews. Mary learns, like Degas had, that one must first develop a hard skin to endure the public evisceration of Impressionists. Not very nice at all but which builds artistic characteristics that certainly do deserve public acclaim.
The novel also covers the triangular love of the Manet brothers with Bertholde Morisot, a consuming fire that always eluded satisfaction and which consumed the wife of Edward Manet who never stopped dreaming he would return to her forever. Interspersed into this story is a conversation in which Mary finally asks Degas if he loved her and he refuses to answer. For art, in the form of painting and sculpture, is his great and singular love; yet the result of this cold response is devastating to Mary. As much as the two try to separate, one is always drawn back by the other, influencing each other’s art and ways of seeing reality.
I Always Loved You: A Novel: is an intriguing look at a very famous artistic period that changed the face of culture forever. Because of the effect of this art on history and viewers, many accepted and forgave these temperamental artists of many overt and covert slights to famous and not so famous individuals. Mary’s sister, Lydia, is perhaps the most honest person in the lot, her vision and perspective of the group being the most realistic and serving as a Greek chorus, when shared, warning all to abandon their immense egos and see things “as they are.” That remains the focus of artistic perspective for Degas and Cassat well into and well after their many reunions and separations. While specific paintings are not entitled, the reader may recognize several well-known works of both artists as well as those of their artist friends!
I Always Loved You is a noteworthy and recommended fictional portrait of artists struggling to create something new in a pivotal historical and artistic period!