Review: With Violets by Elizabeth Robards

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.

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17 thoughts on “Review: With Violets by Elizabeth Robards

  1. Eva says:

    That’s too bad it didn’t live up to your hopes. 😦 I wouldn’t be too nervous though; I think you did a great job in your review! I’ve discovered I’m not usually a fan of fiction inspired by art history, although I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe I just haven’t found the write author yet.

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks, Eva. I haven’t read any art history fiction before, or really anything that fictionalized well known historical figures, as the discussion at Claire’s went. I think I tend to bristle at too much invention around real people from the past, especially when I feel I already know them in a different way. The movie Becoming Jane didn’t work for me because of that.

  2. Nymeth says:

    What a pity! It always saddens me not to enjoy a book I’ve been looking forward to. But you had good reasons to be let down, and like Eva I think you did a great job of explaining them. I can see how knowing the period well would make you expect more of its depiction – it’s only natural. I’m now hesitant to read this, because as much as I enjoy historical fiction, I want it to get it right.

    • Carolyn says:

      It was easy to read, I’ll give it that, but at the same time I kept grinding my teeth at words and phrases that felt far too American… Oh well.

  3. Helen says:

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy it. I love historical fiction but I don’t think I’ll be reading this one. It’s always disappointing when a book doesn’t live up to your expectations, isn’t it? I don’t know much about Manet or 1860s Paris so I probably wouldn’t have noticed any inaccuracies – it’s good to read a review from someone with a knowledge of the period!

    • Carolyn says:

      It’s especially disappointing when there are so few books written in this time period that I think is so fascinating! (but am sometimes too lazy to read myriads of history books about…..) It did cover the siege and commune of Paris in 1870-71, something that I haven’t read about in a novel before, so that was exciting.

  4. Dianne says:

    Thanks for the review on this book. I love historical fiction, anything set in France and anything set in the art world, but I’m not a fan of romances. I guess it isn’t the romance itself, it just seems that romance stories are so often poorly written. Why is that? I have a hard time getting interested when the writing is too sweet or too melodramatic, so I probably won’t read “With Violets”. I’ll keep reading your posts to see if you find anything good in the romance genre. By the way have you read “The Luncheon Of The Boating Party” by Susan Vreeland? It’s an excellent novel covering the time period in which Renoir did the painting.

    Dianne

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Dianne, it’s nice to see you here! I’ve thought of reading The Luncheon of the Boating Party, especially since reading this book and knowing that Vreeland seems to be a fairly well regarded author. I agree with you, romance stories do seem to sink into sentimental cliches easily, as this one does. I love classic romances though, like Jane Austen and Anna Karenina, so I often feel annoyed that there aren’t a lot of modern really well written, deep and insightful ones.

  5. iliana says:

    That is a gorgeous book cover too bad the book didn’t quite live up to your expectations. Have you read Mademoiselle Victorine by Debra Finerman by chance? It’s also a historical novel about Eduard Manet. It wasn’t great but pretty interesting.

    • Carolyn says:

      I think I heard of Mademoiselle Victorine a while ago and was trying to remember the title of it when I wrote this review! Thanks for the reminder. The cover is one of Manet’s paintings of Berthe Morisot, he really is a wonderful artist and I wish I could have included more about him in this review, rather than about the book!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks Dominique — the cover and the title and colour grabbed my attention, I love purple & violets. Oh well. Maybe I can write my own someday…

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Lucy, thanks. I partly finished it just for your challenge but then hesitated over writing the review. I love french culture, but then many of the classic 19th century french authors are very pessimistic, especially about women, so it’s difficult to find a balance. Maybe I’ll check out a few other reviews at your site!

  6. M. I. Mignard says:

    If you knew a lot about Berthe Morisot, you would have liked the book!

    Who cares if Ms. Robards did not much captured the spirit of Second Empire Paris?

    Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet loved each other deeply. Have you read their letters?

    I knew one of her grandsons, a great doctor. My sister’s mother in law was his patient. Dr. Rouart shared with my sister and her mother in law a lot about Bethe Morisot, his grandmother…..

  7. Renee says:

    I’m glad I read your review before buying the book, would have hated to be disappointed as you were. You saved me from that. I am a great admirer of Berthe Morisot’s work and have enjoyed Berthe Morisot by Dominique Bona and The Impressionist world of Julie Manet (Berthe’s daughter by her husband Eugene, brother of Edouard Manet). Maybe you would too. They’re not novels but romantisized (is that a word?) novels are not always a good idea, are they.

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