Avon A, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-06-157912-7
Historical Fiction, 2008
Elizabeth Robards’s With Violets is the author’s creative interpretation of the friendship between two well-known Impressionists, Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot. History documented their friendship and how they seemed to have influenced one another’s painting style, but some people believe that there was underlying hot sexual tension in their letters to one another. So, despite the fact that Berthe ended up marrying Manet’s brother Eugène and Édouard was already married, Ms Robards has Berthe and Édouard having a mad affair in this book.
We are not talking about friendship with benefits here – it’s love at its deepest, most insane intensity, blah blah. Except, Ms Robards’s treatment of the romance ends up being, “I love him… oh my god, his wife is a fat cow … he loves me… stupid skinny bitches, how dare people say they are touching my true love’s pee-pee… he really loves me… NOOOO!… okay, I’ll marry his brother, the end.”
It’s really nice to see Berthe reduced into a classic dimwit. She is a speechless stammering idiot when she first meets Édouard, so of course it’s love at first sight. She loves him, and makes excuses as to why he won’t leave his wife (whom she describes in the most unkind terms possible), she does the same when he hits on his other models, and pines after him even when other nicer men step forth to put her on a pedestal. She gets very angry when he mentions even a slightly positive thing about his wife, because Berthe believes that Suzanne behaved “like a whore” to capture Édouard’s hand in marriage. (Putting out to a married man is, of course, not a whore-like thing to do at all because they are in love, you see.) I’m sure we don’t need an Oprah Winfrey special to see where she is heading. Édouard turns out to be selfish user, but hey, his brother is hot and loves her, so she marries him, the end.
This story is narrated from Berthe’s point of view, so there is no escaping the vapid nature of her thoughts and so-called deep feelings for Édouard. Hey, I’m sure we all know the story and maybe some of us have been in her shoes before, but I don’t see what makes Berthe’s story so special compared to those of countless women who held out and let themselves be used by selfish married men. Why should I care? While she is based on a talented figure in history, this Berthe is just another shallow and silly little girl. Although, “little girl” is pushing it, as she’s 27 when this story takes place.
More disappointingly, there is little insight offered into Berthe’s passion for her art. She paints mostly when she needs something to do between pining “I love him! I hate him!” sessions for Édouard. I don’t get a good sense of how Berthe sees the world in such a unique way that translates into her paintings. This Berthe is depicted instead as this casual painter who just happens to create amazing artworks that stun everyone that sees them. Because Berthe’s relationship with Édouard is so one-sided here, there is little to show that Édouard appreciates her for anything more than his convenient meat piñata and favorite muse of the moment.
The author tosses in the Franco-Prussian war that sees many male artists exchange their brushes for guns, but she glosses over the event. Worse, Berthe emerges untouched by the whole thing. She spends the whole time being carried along by her family as they move from one place to another, wailing about missing Édouard and her love-hate for that man. Seriously, she and the whole romance thing are so banal and insipid, I feel that the author is doing her subjects a huge disservice here.
With Violets is a story about painters that has all the passion of a dead fish. Berthe Morisot’s entry in Wikipedia has far more vibrancy and insight than the entire thing here. This one is a huge wasted opportunity to deliver something special, and I’m all the more disappointed as a result.