I’ve been a bit nervous about writing this review, because as much as I wanted to like this book (obviously, as I did buy it!), I didn’t really. It’s set in Paris in the 1860s, a time period I’m fascinated by, and is about an imagined affair between two famous Impressionist painters, Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet. Manet became one of my favourite painters after I wrote an Art History paper on him and when I went to Paris on my honeymoon, I was very eager to see some of his paintings at the Musee d’Orsay. Since the cover of With Violets has an embellished version of one of his paintings on it (of Berthe Morisot), I was pretty much sold.
But. Oh bother. I was very frustrated reading this book. First off, the language was too syrupy sweet, presenting an overly simplified and romanticized version of the past, and there were jumps between present and past tense, along with too many typos and that kind of thing. I will admit my expectations for this book were high, I’ve read classics set in the time period (Zola, Baudelaire, Flaubert and parts of the Goncourt brothers’ journal) and have studied a bit of the history. I was hoping for further insight into the time, place and people and an enjoyable beautifully written read. But I didn’t feel that the author captured the richness of Second Empire Paris — if you want to know what it was like then, read Emile Zola’s sumptuous descriptions of the clothes, furniture, shops and squalor of everyone from the nouveau riche down to the protesting poor. He did his research as a journalist into the lives of rich and poor and everyone in between. In contrast, this book has simply slapped a romance that isn’t based on historical fact over the top of it. The one good thing about it is that it’s from a female point of view and gives a more feminist ending than many of the French writers of the time period did! I think it could work as a good introduction to the time period, if you like a history mixed with a huge dose of romance. (I am trying to explore romance novels this year and not reject them out of hand, I have a few Georgette Heyers waiting for me at the library which I’m very much looking forward to, but but I’m hoping for polished writing too.)
This is a painting by Manet of Morisot, and when I was at the Musee d’Orsay, it’s actually the one that most caught my eye. It’s beautifully sensual and mysterious, entitled Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets. I may read more about Berthe Morisot in time, she was very talented and one of the few female artists standing side by side with the pioneering Impressionists. This painting shows her depths, unfortunately the book does not.