Friday, January 23, 2015

Review and Giveaway: RODIN'S LOVER by Heather Webb

Written with a passion and conviction worthy of the sculptor herself, Heather Webb's new novel RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, January 2015) explores the tumultuous life, troubled psyche, and splendid achievements of Camille Claudel, student, protégée and rival of artist Auguste Rodin. Born in an era that expected bourgeoise women to reflect their husbands' glory, Camille determines instead to amplify her own. Gifted with the skills, vision and tenacity necessary to succeed as an artist, she confronts head-on the prejudices and condescension of the male artistic establishment, showing pieces in Salon exhibitions and even earning a civic commission. But Camille's success does not come without price--like a file on fine marble, the constant strife wears away at her mental and emotional stability, exacerbating paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies. Her romantic relationship with Rodin becomes both a crucible of creativity and the catalyst of the tortured artist's ultimate undoing.

Camille at work
Webb's Camille is as entrancing and rough-hewn as one of her statues. The novel opens with her tussling with her beloved brother, shirking lessons to gather clay in the woods, and vowing to a raven, under a full moon, to pursue her dreams. Once in Paris, she devours the sights, sounds and smells of the city with ravenous delight and watches, with endearing curiosity, a male model undress before the class on the first day of art school. She toys with the suitors her mother insists she meet, charming them into abandoning the hunt. She loses herself for hours in her quest to coax beauty from unformed lumps of earth and resistant rock. She pursues the best models and the finest teachers, her belief in herself and her devotion to her calling never wavering. Yet for all her passion and joie de vivre, Camille has an abrasive side, one that Webb never shirks from depicting. The seeds of Camille's mental illness sprout early, nourished by the critical waters of her mother's rejection. Ever fearful of abandonment, Camille refuses to allow others close, especially women. She rebuffs overtures of friendship and systematically destroys the few attachments that manage to take hold. Webb is careful to associate Camille's increasing alienation with descriptions of the physical symptoms that assail her (metallic tastes, vision problems, hallucinations, and an insidious Voice that ever murmurs suspicious suggestions in her ear), inspiring sympathy for rather than annoyance with the character. The reader experiences the unravelling of the artist's promise and very self in real time and marvels that Camille accomplishes all she does, given the panoply of internal and external obstacles arrayed against her.

Webb's Rodin pales in comparison to the vibrant, tormented Camille. Waging his own battle against the establishment, he yearns for acceptance by the state yet refuses to sculpt in the style that would earn him ready praise. His collaboration and liaison with Camille becomes the source of inspiration and passion he needs to lift his work to a level of genius that even the advocates of decency and civic virtue can't ignore. But just as Rodin can't shake his need for approval--though he might declare otherwise--he cannot abandon Rose, his lover of twenty years, despite his impassioned avowals of love for Camille. He supports Camille in every way he can, training her, introducing her to critics, buying supplies and renting studio space, treating her to holidays and dinners, yet he refuses to commit himself fully to her. Rodin's bourgeois hesitancy leads the reader to wonder whether Camille's accusations that Rodin steals her ideas and profits from her work are simply the ravings of a disturbed mind. In any case, Webb's depiction of the artists' affair reflects the nagging question of whether Camille would have achieved success without Rodin's help back onto the artist himself. Wedded to his tired housekeeper and bourgeois values, Rodin might never have surpassed the limits of circumstance if not coaxed beyond them by the passion and courage of Camille.

In this, her second novel, Heather Webb tackles weighty subjects: mental illness, envy, oppression, illicit love. That she does so in a way that preserves Camille's integrity and prevents her from becoming an object of pity testifies to Webb's skill as a writer. This novel of passion and power in Belle Époque France both satisfies and inspires, illuminating an artist who spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum and still, to this day, lingers in the shadow of man. Thanks to Webb, that shadow has become all the shorter.

Tender yet resolute, soulful but never dark, RODIN'S LOVER pulses with the sensuous tempo of a lover's waltz. Deeper and defter than Webb's debut, it promises even richer work to come.

Heather Webb is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, 2013) and RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, 2015), a freelance editor, and blogger. You may also find her contributing to award-winning writing sites including Writer Unboxed and Romance University. When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. Visit her website and her blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


This review is part of the RODIN'S LOVER book tour organized by France Book Tours. Please visit the France Book Tours website for additional information and to read other reviews of Heather's book. France Book Tours has organized a giveaway of two copies of the novel, open to readers in the USA and Canada. Fill out the form at the France Book Tours website and enter today!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview with Priya Parmar, Author of VANESSA AND HER SISTER

Priya Parmar discusses her just released novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine). The novel has been chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Authors Spring 2015 Pick and is receiving wonderful press reviews. You can read my own review here.

1. How did you become interested in the Bloomsbury group and what compelled you to write about them?

I was reading a selection of Vanessa Bell’s letters and came across a letter that she wrote rejecting Clive Bell’s marriage proposal. The letter was startlingly modern and her tone was so authentic and likeable. Her character stepped off the page right there.

2. You chose to explore the Stephen sisters’ relationship from Vanessa’s point of view in the form of her private diary. What advantages did this structure and perspective afford you? In what ways did it limit you?

I am always interested in looking at familiar history through unfamiliar lenses. Vanessa Bell was the absolute center of the group but her letters have never been widely published and she did not leave behind a diary. Her unfamiliar voice in the midst of these well-known characters was fascinating to me.

Lytton (1912) by Vanessa Bell
3. You cleverly insert postcards, snippets of letters, facsimile tickets, telegrams and other non-narrative items between Vanessa’s diary entries in order to introduce other viewpoints into the story. Were these actual historical documents or did you fabricate them to advance the storyline and themes? At what point during the writing process did you insert them and how did you decide they were needed?

Everything in the novel was fictional but the design team at Random House and I worked from original documentation to create the look of the ephemera. They were all created in the style of existing primary documents and they are all based on actual correspondence. Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf several times a week and Roger Fry wrote to his wife Helen from his posting in America.

4. In the novel, Vanessa’s culmination as an artist coincides with her estrangement from Virginia. How dependent do you feel Vanessa’s success was on her ability to free herself of Virginia’s emotional demands?

This is very much a novel. It is a guess, a hat tossed into the ring at the interior landscape of these historical figures. Vanessa stepped into prominence with Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition and it did coincide with the end of Virginia Woolf’s emotional entanglement with Clive Bell. That much is fact. My fictional Vanessa had to emancipate herself before she could fully step into her role as an artist.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell
5. You portray Virginia as brilliant yet fragile and emotionally manipulative of those she loves. Did you worry about portraying such a revered literary figure in a less-than-complimentary light? How would you respond to someone who took issue with your portrayal?

It was terrifying. But my portrayal was grounded in huge amounts of research and I cleared it with several Woolf experts and then showed it to Woolf’s descendants. Once the brilliant writer Virginia Nicholson (Woolf’s great niece and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter) read the novel and approved it, I felt much better!

6. How did writing from the viewpoint of a visual artist challenge you as a writer?

I have a dear friend who is an artist and I spoke to her about her relationship with her work. It helped enormously as it is such a very different creative process from writing.

7. The novel begins with Virginia’s plea for forgiveness and ends with Vanessa’s refusal to grant it. Did the sisters ever completely reconcile in real life?

We do not know for certain. Based upon Angelica Garnett’s writing, no, I do not think they ever completely healed the rift. But they loved each other fiercely for the remainder of their lives.

8. What strategies did you use to help manage the novel’s large cast of supporting characters?

I had an extraordinary editor! She helped me to clarify and simplify. The cast was originally much larger!

9. If you could write the story of the Bloomsbury group from the perspective of any character other than Vanessa or Virginia, whom would you choose and why?

Ottoline Morrell. Because she was underestimated and underestimated people are always surprising.

10. What is the best bit of advice about writing or the writing life you have to pass on to as-yet unpublished authors?

Write the story that is in your head. Even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Write it the way you hear it in your mind.

A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, EXIT THE ACTRESS. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London. You can find out more about Priya at her website.

Review: VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

You see, Nessa and I are more than just sisters. We are different--exceptional. 

So writes Virginia Woolf to a friend in Priya Parmar's captivating new novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine, 2014). Exceptional Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell certainly were--exceptional for their contributions to the world of art and letters, exceptional for their pivotal roles in the intellectual circle that gathered at their home, exceptional in the importance each held in the other's emotional life.

But whereas Virginia thrives on being more than "just sisters" with her sibling, the Vanessa Parmar presents in her novel would relish the more circumscribed role. Beneath the broader story Parmar paints with verve of the bohemian escapades and intellectual ebullience of the Bloomsbury intellectuals, the sisters' conflict--Virginia's determination to retain Vanessa's complete attention and Vanessa's desperation to escape this obsessive preoccupation--builds to an agonizing climax.

Vanessa Bell (1902) by George Beresford
Vanessa, an accomplished painter, narrates the novel as a private journal covering the period 1905 to 1912. Recently orphaned, the four young and wealthy Stephens siblings set up house in a past-its-prime neighborhood of London. Just as the neighborhood has shed the glory of its Victorian heyday, the group of artists, writers, students and critics that frequents the house eagerly dispenses with stuffy convention. They keep mixed company, drop in unannounced, refuse to dress for dinner, and call each other by their given names. Couples--both hetero- and homosexual--form and reform at will. Applying this unfettered enthusiasm to their various pursuits--Virginia, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey to literature; Vanessa, Duncan Grant, Robert Fry, and Clive Bell to visual art; John Maynard Keyes to economics--they make their mark in the more avant-garde fringes of their respective fields. The group feeds off the confrontation of ideas and personalities that occurs at the Stephens' drawing room. Vanessa, with straightforward level-headedness and unaffected frankness, anchors the group, while brilliant, fragile Virginia provides the animating spark--when the mood and inclination strikes her.

Virginia Woolf (1902) by George Beresford
Virginia's emotional fragility has long been Vanessa's prime worry. The writer has had previous nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa is ever wary of seeing her sister succumb yet again. Virginia thrives on being the center of attention and is particularly adept at manipulating her brothers, sister and friends so as to remain there. She wields an unhealthy hegemony over Vanessa, who recognizes the danger in her sister's constant need for more--more affection, more contact, more safety, more secrets--yet has had little reason, or willingness, to deny her. Things change when Vanessa falls in love with Clive Bell and contemplates marriage. The exclusivity she and Clive share necessitates distance from Virginia, but Virginia refuses to retreat. She fights abandonment the only way she knows--by claiming what Vanessa has for herself. Will Vanessa realize what is happening before it is too late? More importantly, will she risk her sister's mental stability in order to secure her own happiness?

With keen psychological insight, Parmar explores the sisters' interdependence and follows the trail of need and betrayal to its unfortunate end. In so doing, she finds an inviting entry into the densely populated and much examined world of Bloomsbury. The sisters' conflict mirrors the larger questions of the age, illustrating the clash of theory and practice in the arena of values--for all their eagerness to jettison conventional roles and traditional virtues during debate, the characters find little comfort in their bohemian free-spiritedness when it comes to the concreteness of their particular lives. Based on extensive research and thorough familiarity with the historical characters' private papers, VANESSA AND HER SISTER delves deep into the sisters' psyches to elucidate the cause of their estrangement. Beautifully executed and ever convincing, Parmar's novel found a ready place on my list of the year's best reads.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Étrennes: A New Year's Tradition

It has long been a tradition in France to give gifts on New Year's Day. The word étrennes (as opposed to the more generic cadeaux) refers specifically to these New Year's gifts, now usually bestowed as signs of appreciation to the doorman, the letter carrier, and others who provide service throughout the year.

In the sixteenth century, Christmas was observed as a religious  holiday, so gifts were given at the turn of the new year. So popular was the practice that it took on a poetic form. François I's court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544), sent short, epigrammatic poems to members of the court at the holiday. Although he wrote étrennes throughout his career, in 1541 Marot published a collection of forty-one of them addressed to the ladies of the court. In each poem, he presents a gift to the lady he names.

For example, to Queen Eléonore (François's second wife and sister of his enemy Charles V) he grants accord between her husband and brother:

Au ciel ma Dame je crye,
Et Dieu prie,
Vous faire veoir au printemps
Frere, & mary si contents
Que tout rye.

Madame, I cry to heaven,
And beg God,
That you may see by springtime
Your brother and husband so happy
That everyone laughs.

To the Dauphine, Catherine de Medici, barren for the first decade or so of her marriage, he grants a child:

A Ma Dame la Daulphine
Rien n'assigne:
Elle a ce, qu'il faut avoir,
Mais je la vouldroys bien veoir
En gesine.

To Madame la Daulphine
I prescribe nothing:
She has what she needs,
But I would really like to see her
On the point of giving birth.

To Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister, who was one of Marot's staunchest supporters:

A la noble Marguerite,
Fleur d'eslite,
Je luy donne aussi grand heur
Que sa grace, & sa grandeur
Le merite.

To the noble Marguerite,
Flower of the elite,
I give the good fortune
That her grace and greatness

And to Madame d'Etampes, the king's long-time mistress:

Sans prejudice à personne,
Je vous donne
La pomme d'or de beaulté,
Et de ferme loyaulté
La couronne.

Without wronging anyone,
I give to you
The golden apple of beauty
And the crown
Of firm loyalty.

In these brief and often mordant poems, Marot provides us a snapshot of the personalities and the concerns of the French court around 1539-- a literary version, if you will, of Jean Clouet's chalk portraits. One wonders if the courtiers played guessing games with the étrennes as they did with the sketches.

I'm no Marot, so I'll have to wish you all--in prose--a healthy, happy new year filled with good fortune of every kind!

[Marot's verse quoted from Gérard Defaux's edition, Classiques Garnier (1993). Translations mine.]
A version of this post originally appeared on Writing the Renaissance on January 1, 2009.