Camille Claudel is a woman most women cannot stand – she’s arrogant, loud-mouthed and pretentious. She always has an opinion, the right one, and she’s never afraid to share it. If you think these characteristics annoying and rude in today’s society, imagine its late 19th century Paris where men rule society and women are just prizes on their arms. Predictably, Claudel doesn’t win friends in Heather Webb’s Rodin’s Lover, a fictionalized account of the real-life affair of Claudel and Auguste Rodin.
Claudel is born into a well-off but working-class family who spend their summers in Villeneuve, France. Consumed by her talent and ambition, Claudel believes herself destined to be a famous sculptor and imagines herself above others, especially other women in her field. Without a proper instructor, she fears her talents will never be fully realized, especially if her mother makes her marry and raise a family. When her father suggests the family move to Paris so she can grow under the tutelage of Alfred Boucher, she is ecstatic. Once they arrive, she is determined to let nothing stop her from making a name for herself; that is until Monsieur Boucher leaves her and employs another tutor, Auguste Rodin. Claudel will eventually find herself completely unraveled under her new tutor’s eye.
Rodin understands Claudel’s passion and wants desperately to help her succeed. Claudel eventually gives herself over to him and a tumultuous relationship begins. Her jealous nature quickly builds into a crazed rage against herself for falling for a reputed womanizer; Rodin for his continued success in the male-dominated art world; and her family and friends for telling her how to live her life. Her career sees peaks and many valleys but her work is recognized among her peers and the elite who control her destiny.
Webb’s portrayal of these two lovers is very moving and yet aggravating at the same time. While not a romance novel, for there are not many uncomfortable love scenes, moments between Claudel and Rodin when they allow themselves to love one another are quite hopeful and romantic. Webb’s description of the Belle Époque is fantastic – you can really smell the streets of Paris and envision the artists, their works and the salons they visit. I did not care too much for Claudel and almost found myself happy at her self-destruction. But then imagining treatment for the mentally ill of that day made me realize why she allowed herself to go as far as she did without help. And that realization demands pity for her. Rodin’s Lover is a good historical fiction novel without epic amounts of history that come with some literary works. I found it interesting and although I wanted to finish it, I did not sit on the edge of my seat to get to the end. Those interested in art history, France and feminist literature will appreciate this novel.