Up next on Mom’s book club list was Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You. This should be right up my alley: a well-researched, thoughtfully written historical novel about art and artists (particularly French Impressionists–one of my favorite genres!). And in many ways, it is, but ultimately I felt underwhelmed by Oliveira’s story of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’ “relationship.”
I Always Loved You tells the story of Mary Cassatt, American painter who made her way to Paris and determinedly carved out a career as a member of the Impressionists, an artistic and social group that included at various points Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Cezanne, Caillebotte, and, of course, Edgar Degas. The story begins around Mary’s rejection by the Salon and introduction to Degas, who takes an artistic interest in her. Over the years, they develop a will-they-won’t-they relationship that never fully manifests as an actual romantic relationship, despite coming close many times. As Mary’s style evolves and Degas’ eyesight worsens over the years, they deal with the ups-and-downs of being an artist in Belle Epoque Paris (and working with each other) and the pressures of Mary’s parents and beloved sister who have come to live with her from Pittsburgh to provide a guiding eye to her art and money.
So it was nice. I mean, it was very nice, but I just didn’t really feel like a lot was going on in any way that made the novel stand out from the crowd. Mary Cassatt was known for painting female relationships: mother-daughter, sisters, friends, etc., and Oliveira does a good job of portraying the relationship between Mary, her mother, her sister, and her best friend who inspired these themes in her work. I particularly appreciated the complexities of Mary’s relationship with her mother, through which Oliveira highlighted both the parent-child and friendship elements of an adult daughter and her mother. Honestly, I found Mary’s relationship with her family, especially her father, the most compelling part of the book. Mary and her father operate in different worlds (art and business), and it’s really lovely to see them negotiate learning about the other’s goals and interests, despite the pitfalls that arise.
Mary’s relationship with Edgar Degas, on the other hand, was alternately dull and frustrating, which, if it was anything close to the way it was depicted in this novel in real life, must have been incredibly frustrating, both personally and professionally. Degas does not come off terribly well here-self-centered, a perfectionist, mercurial, and ultimately dismissive of others’ feelings. However, his passion for and dogged commitment to his art make it easy to understand why people were drawn to him. I just wish there had been…more? More about his art, more about his history, more about his interpersonal relationships? I don’t know. I just feel like the novel covered a very long period of time at a relatively surface level.
I’ve had a very hard time writing this review because I just don’t really have strong feelings one way or another about this novel. It’s fine. It’s nice. It’s lovely, even. It’s a very easy read where honestly not much happens. And not all novels have to be exciting and eventful, but this one just felt a little lacking. What it did do is give me a little more insight into Mary Cassatt, who I actually knew very little about, and caused me to want to learn more about her. So if you want a nice, light read about interesting artists, I Always Loved You is a good bet.