Title: I Always Loved You
Author: Robin Oliveira
Pub. Date: February 4, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is begging her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever. Years later she will learn that he had begged for the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships.
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction
She would adore her child and tend her husband, but love, that elusive prize, had left her now. What a horror it was to be mortal, she thought, subject to such appalling weaknesses and needs. What a horror it was to be alive.
These are the reviews that are the hardest to write. If I had felt strongly about this book – on either end of the spectrum – I would have no problem putting my thoughts down. As it were, however, I Always Loved You was a novel that more often than not dragged, with the good parts being simply satisfactory. I follow GoodReads’s rating system, and according to them, a two star rating means a book was merely okay. And, when it comes down to it, that’s all this novel was. Okay. Passable. Decent. Ultimately forgettable. It was an effort on my part to finish (I spent nearly two weeks reading it!) and while there were intriguing chapters, at no point did I feel that calling to rush home from work/grocery shopping/what have you to jump back into the story.
I Always Loved You follows Mary Cassatt from her early days as a young American painter in Paris to old age. Along the way we’re introduced to numerous artists – Renoir, Monet, both Manet brothers – nearly all of whom have banded together to hold their own exhibitions after having paintings rejected by the famed Paris Salon. After an introduction to Degas (she had long admired his work and he had admired hers), she finds herself tangled in this misfit group. Reading about these painters was like watching a soap opera. Though many were married, their affections lay elsewhere and even the paternity of a child was called into question (though never in public of course!). With Mary spending more and more time with Degas rumors run rampant throughout Paris and neither really does anything to stop it.
Mary spends her days painting or caring for her ailing sister once her family makes the move from Philadelphia to Paris. On occasion Degas stops by the have dinner or present Mrs. Cassatt and Mary’s sister Lydia with gifts. Out of the blue, however, he’ll disappear and Mary won’t hear a word from him for a month or longer. Despite his gusto when it comes to taking on new projects, Degas always manages to leave the others hanging – multiple exhibitions are held only for the other artists to discover at the last minute, that Degas hadn’t painted a single piece. Years of productivity went down the drain after he abandoned a journal start up that many people – including Mary – had devoted time and money to.
While the book was largely devoted to Mary and Degas, there were multiple chapters that followed other artists and, honestly, I wound up getting many of them confused. Was it Édouard who was married to Suzanne yet in love with Berthe or was it his brother Eugène? Who was it again that had been rejected by the Salon this year? The year before? I got lost in the small details that made up I Always Loved You and the confusion made it difficult to become fully invested in the story.
I also had a hard time coming to care to Edgar and Mary’s relationship – if you choose to call it that. For decades these two were friends one day, had epically heated arguments the next, ignored one another for months, then rekindled their friendship. Rinse, repeat. They were in love with one another yet never admitted to their feelings. They were stubborn and bitter to the end and each died alone. The passionate romance I had been promised just wasn’t there. At one point Edgar carelessly blurted out a marriage proposal, to which Mary slammed the door in his face. I’m convinced there’s no way these two would have been able to tolerate a life together.
It’s such a shame that this novel was so disappointing. Despite my utter ignorance when it comes to the art world, I do love a good novel exploring it and have read many fantastic books on the subject. Add in the historical aspect plus Parisian setting and I Always Loved You was shaping up to be a book handcrafted for me. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Slow chapters (entire chapters comprised of only a single multi-page paragraph!), a large jumble of characters, and a frustrating romance led to me having a rather hard time getting through this book. Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of this one, I’ve heard wonderful things about Oliveira’s debut, My Name is Mary Sutter, and look forward to giving that novel a try.