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Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet    by Stephanie Cowell order for
Claude & Camille
by Stephanie Cowell
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

As Stephanie Cowell's Claude & Camille opens, an aging artist, Claude Monet, reflects in Giverny on his early life - and especially on the love of that life, Camille-Léonie Doncieux - after he attempts and fails to reopen communication with Camille's hostile sister Annette. His musings take readers back in time to when the big names in the Impressionist movement were all struggling young artists living bohemian lives in Paris and sharing what little they had.

Before that, Claude Monet grows up in Le Havre, selling chalk caricatures for cash and resisting his father's desire that he join him in his shop that sells nautical supplies. One day, a local landscape painter, Eugène Boudin, sees Monet's work and challenges him to paint with him at dawn the next day. Boudin teaches his young protégé what he can and urges Monet to study in Paris. He takes this good advice and, though money is scarce, makes friends of Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Manet, and a medical student (from a wealthy family) whose only love is painting, Jean-Frédéric Bazille.

After his name comes up in the army lottery (and his father refuses to buy him out), Monet has a brief stint in Algiers until typhoid sends him home again. He returns to Paris, where he and Frédéric rent a studio that becomes a meeting place for their circle of friends. Each year they submit their work to the Salon, but have little success. Then Claude encounters Camille in her uncle's bookshop and she becomes his muse, though her sister disapproves. Annette is to be married soon and the family has plans for Camille as well. But after she models for Monet, his portrait of her is accepted by the Salon.

Camille eventually leaves her comfortable, well-bred family and moves in with Claude, enjoying his friends and pursuing her interest in acting. But their life together is a constant struggle, especially after their baby son, Jean, is born. Though Camille supports her genius lover constantly and puts up with each adversity, her moods are often fragile. And Monet despairs of every achieving success and being able to support his young family. Even his closest friendship suffers as Frédéric tells him, 'You have never understood anything, least of all what you are to me.'

When France and Prussia go to war, the Monets head to England, while friends (including Frédéric) enlist. Claude's paintings sell. But when the couple returns to France, the past haunts them and Camille's darker moods become more frequent. After Monet earns a commission to paint panels at a country chateau he meets Alice Hoschedé, with whom he has an affair. With Camille's support, he shelters Alice and her children when her husband has serious financial troubles.

There's more than one love triangle involved in this highly recommended tale. It's a story of one of the great romances, between a superb artist and the at times fragile woman who was always his strongest supporter. Don't miss Claude & Camille.

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