Sunday, May 1, 2011

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

Back cover blurb:

Sometimes he dreamt he held her; that he would turn in bed and she would be there. But she was gone and he was old. Nearly seventy. Only cool paint met his fingers. “Ma très chère . . .” Darkness started to fall, dimming the paintings. He felt the crumpled letter in his pocket. “I loved you so,” he said. “I never would have had it turn out as it did. You were with all of us when we began, you gave us courage. These gardens at Giverny are for you but I’m old and you’re forever young and will never see them. . . .”

In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris. But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time. His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside. But Camille had her own demons – secrets that Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner. A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude and Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order.

Claude and Camille is a novel about the great love between impressionist painter, Claude Monet, and Camille Doncieux, a young woman from a well-to-do family. Late 19th century Paris is a lure for aspiring artists. Despite his father’s wishes for Claude to take over the family business, Claude travels to Paris to follow his passion for painting. There, he surrounds himself with other aspiring artists like Bazille, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, among others. But the path to success is fraught with struggles. Claude and his friends economize and share living quarters, often going hungry or being evicted when they cannot pay the rent. It is a life of hardship that affects their lives in adverse ways, often bringing the couple closer or sometimes tearing them apart.

 Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux

Their hand to mouth existence, coupled with Claude and Camille's own faults, is what really makes this story come alive with humanity and poignancy.  It is difficult for me to adequately describe the evocative, but simple voice the novel is written in, which permits the story to rise forth with richness from its pages.

To describe art is no easy feat, but author Stephanie Cowell does so with splendour and vividness. I found myself running to the computer in order to look up some of the portraits described in the story. This is not only a love story, but a story of survival. The reader is swept into Paris to experience the hardships some of the world's most famous painters endured in order to achieve their success. Love, frustration, betrayal, and lust all take place between this novel's pages. This is truly a beautiful book and one definitely to add to your reading list this year.

Camille Reading
One of many paintings of Camille by Claude Monet

An Interview with Author Stephanie Cowell

Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

CLAUDE & CAMILLE is the story of the young Claude Monet and the great love of his life, the beautiful Camille. As he struggles to sell his first paintings, Camille leaves her privileged life to share tenement rooms and poverty with him. He promises her everything with the wild promises of a young man, but before he can begin to obtain a little of the fame that would come to him, she dies young. Years later, now a wealthy painter in his water lily gardens in Giverny, he begins a search to discover all the secret things he never knew about her and the reasons she haunts him still.

You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?

My editor and agent and I really struggled to find the right title. At first it was called “Water Lilies” but I wanted to indicate it was a love story. What inspired the book? Oh many things! I come from a family of artists; I grew up with easels and paint brushes and the smell of oil paints. I never thought to write of an artist though until I saw an exhibition of the early works of the Impressionists; I was inspired by their close friendship and how obscure they were back then. But more than that, almost all my close friends have been in one of the arts or another and there is often such difficulty to be recognized and to create that sometimes we have asked ourselves, “Is all we have gone through and put others through worth what we have created?” And Claude Monet in the novel asks himself, “Are my paintings in the end worth all the hardship to Camille? Which perhaps caused her death?” I leave that question to the reader.

What makes this book special to you?

I fell in love with all the characters, especially Claude and Camille. They had such a tremendous passion between them and such impossible circumstances. Young love often decides to ignore all realities of money, family opposition. It’s the most wonderful thing to write about! And I loved creating the Paris Bohemian world of 1865 of Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, etc. before anyone wanted their work. I loved creating the life of the cold high studios up many flights of steep dark stairs where so many brilliant works were created and no one knew about it.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

Many people tell me how wonderful it was to learn how gifted, insecure, sexy, lonely and very handsome and totally undiscovered Claude Monet was in his early years, how desperately in love he was, so much that it conflicted with his painting. I have so many e-mails from readers who have told me they looked at his paintings in a wholly new way after reading the novel and that just thrills me. I am thrilled when I hear a book club has made a journey to a museum to discuss the book next to his paintings.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

I made up stories as a little girl because I was mostly alone. You know children (especially little children) have this wonderful ability to take a clump of sand and see a castle, or a bunch of pebbles and create family and friends from them and make up stories. Now I hardly dare go into a museum without three new novel ideas coming to me and practically persecuting me to write them. Who sat in that 18th century chair? Who walked up that medieval stairway? Was he sad? Who waited for him at the top?

I think creativity in writing comes from wanting to express what fascinates us, what haunts us, what we need to explain to ourselves in life. Just write and let anything come out; you can fix it later. My work is rough sketches and takes many drafts to grow up to be a novel. Love it and be patient with it. Your early work is a little child; you have to love it and feed it time and slowly it will grow in a combination of what you want and what you are.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

I think the biggest stumbling block is not being patient enough; I have to do things in my own time and in my own way. I discover novels rather than write them. So don’t look at your draft and yell, “Idiot!” at yourself but look for the few parts you love and start to coax rougher parts into a better form. It may take six months or fifteen years. I think jealousy is a problem and can stop us, but we are all unique. No one can write what you can write in your particular way. If you don’t write it, it won’t be there for you and others.

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?

I looked up school art teachers all over the country and e-mailed a bunch of them! And now in library readings with a power point exhibition of Monet’s paintings, I have promised to sing some French folk songs which Claude likely hummed as he painted. The singing author!

Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

I start with a paragraph or a brief scene; I am generally very taken with a character and a particular place in time…Paris 1865 for instance! I may write many scenes which are not connected at all. As the characters come more to life, I start to see the possibility of a plot and an ending but that may change. The hardest thing for me is pacing and point of view. I generally know a little about the character when I start and a little bit about the place and time. I may change the end and almost always change the beginning.

Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

I try to be up writing by 8:00 or 8:30 and write on average 3-5 hrs. I check a few e-mails first and then after about an hour I make some coffee. I like morning hours because I come from the dream state and the daily needs of my life have not yet become more important than the world of the book. I work on the computer and print out often to read and mark up, especially towards the end of a draft. I try not to go on line too much and see who is doing what on Facebook. I write in my pajamas. Sometimes someone rings the bell (I live in an apartment house in NYC) and it is the house handyman or a delivery and I am sure people wonder why I am in my pajamas with hair all messy at two in the afternoon!

What is your current work in progress?

I am working on a novel about the love story and marriage of the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. She was nearly 40 and an invalid in her family’s London house when he fell in love with her (he was younger) and eloped with her to Italy. VERY romantic.

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

Yes! My website is

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I started writing when I was about seven years and wrote until my early twenties. I had several short stories published and won prizes in a national writing competition. I left writing because it was lonely I think, and it needed more work than I knew how to give it, and became a classical singer for quite a while. I sang a lot of high soprano roles in opera, all of which went into the research for my fourth novel MARRYING MOZART. I left professional music in my early 40s and returned to writing. I wrote four novels before I sold my first one. It’s often not easy to write and it’s not always a dream at all, but then nothing is. Strangers write me about my books and say the most beautiful things and I feel very awed and humbled by their words.


The Lit Bitch said...

Sounds like a great book, would love to enter the give away, email is

Blog is


Shelley said...

You're right--it is very, very difficult to describe art in an intelligent way, and if Ms. Cowell succeeded in that, then she succeeded in a lot.