- By Heather Webb
- 306 pp.
- Reviewed by Joy Callaway
- February 5, 2015
A young woman’s passion for art preludes her descent into madness.
Humans are universally bound, it seems, to seek out a purpose for our lives. The need to pursue this quest and eventually own the knowledge of it permeates our beings. For artists, for writers, the search for purpose is not only our own, but also the pursuit of others’ purposes. In order to realize our art, in order to paint souls unlike ours into our vision, first we must understand them.
In Rodin’s Lover, author Heather Webb’s Camille Claudel knows this well. From a young age, she has known her life’s function — to create beauty through sculpture. It is a stamp on her soul that will both enliven her heart and drive her mad.
The novel opens on a teenage Camille in Villeneuve-sure-Fere, France, in 1881, frantically digging in the earth for clay. Webb paints a beautiful picture — the desperation coursing through her veins to gather the materials to sculpt regardless of the fine clothing she is ruining or the fact that she is late to meet with her tutor. Her brother, Paul, who accompanies her on this outing, is a true confidant, as is her father, who is eventually convinced to move the family to Paris to allow Camille to study sculpture under the eye of the renowned Alfred Boucher.
This move strains an already prickly relationship between Camille and her mother, who does not approve of her daughter’s obsession with what the world still deems a man’s profession. Camille immediately begins studying at the Academie Colarossi, initially befriending two other women. Together, they decide to rent their own atelier in order to obtain the space needed to work on their art. Throughout this time, Camille often grows frustrated with the women, finding it difficult to work with those who do not share her same fervent passion.
Her focus pays off, however, when Boucher convinces Monsieur Dubois, the director of the esteemed l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts — an all-male academy — to take a look at her work. During this visit, Dubois makes the comment that Camille’s art mimics Auguste Rodin’s. Though Rodin was quite famous at the time, Camille had only heard his name in passing and had never seen his work. She is furious at the insinuation that she would copy anyone’s style, but soon finds herself working with Rodin himself, as Boucher must resign as her tutor to study in Italy.
Initially, Camille and Auguste’s relationship is strictly that of tutor and student, though it is clear that both are attracted to the passion and art of the other. As Auguste continues to tutor Camille, he is blown away by her talent and intensity, and eventually asks her to work with him on some of his projects. It is during a late-night session that their physical attraction first ignites.
Camille is torn between giving way to her feelings and keeping Auguste at a distance, fearful that love of any kind may somehow tarnish her sculpting, that he will eventually cast her aside for his live-in friend/former lover, Rose, or that her association with him will muddle her own identity as an artist. Her love and fear play on her every move for the rest of her life, while Auguste’s love for her seems to drive him forward.
As both Auguste and Camille’s careers begin to thrive — his with increased acclaim and commissions, hers with acceptance into several salons — their passion for each other deepens. It is during this time that Camille begins to hear voices. At first they only seem like normal thoughts, but as their relationship progresses, the voices begin to overwhelm her and muddle her common sense.
She lashes out at both Auguste and others. As she begins to lose all of her relationships, even jeopardizing the steadfastness of Auguste’s love and her brother’s devotion, she burrows further into madness and sculpture in an attempt to balance her art and her relationships — until the voices force her to choose.
Webb’s tale of the passionate, tormented love between Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin is truly transportive. From the beginning, Webb’s evocative settings immerse the reader in the simultaneous beauty and filth of Belle-Époque Paris, and our hearts are set to hinge on each blunder and triumph of Camille’s quest to contribute something of beauty.
Webb portrays the relationship between the torn, tender Auguste and the raving, beautiful Camille realistically and vividly. So much so that, by the end, the reader is shaken, feeling the echoes of the emotional earthquake caused by two people whose passion for art and each other is so brutally intense that they cannot be joined without scars or separated without fracture.
Joy Callaway is a women’s historical-fiction writer. Her first book, The Fifth Avenue Artists Society, will be published by Harper Perennial in 2016.