Impressionist affairs fuel historical fiction
In her second work of historical fiction, Robin Oliveira whisks readers to the middle of the burgeoning Impressionist movement in La Belle Epoque Paris through the career of a young Mary Cassatt. Similar to Woody Allen who, in his charming Midnight in Paris, brings personalities such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein back to life, Oliveira introduces readers to Impressionist celebrities such as Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro and the ill-fated lovers Edouard Manet and his sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot.
As the novel opens, Cassatt is exhibiting a portrait in the Salon de Paris (quite the honor for an American female); despite her acceptance to the Salon, she fears her Parisian career is a failure, and she contemplates returning to America. That evening, Gustave Courbet comes knocking on her door to introduce her to the notorious Edgar Degas, who immediately intuits Cassatt's frustration with the limitations of the Academie's style on Cassatt's works. He invites Cassatt to join the Impressionists in their 1879 exhibition the following year, and, in doing so, he not only inspires her to remain in Paris, but also initiates, at least in Oliveira's imagination, the beginning of an equivocal alliance of genius minds. Ultimately, this liaison tests the limit of passion; can it be divided between the pursuit of true art and romantic love?
Oliveira's previous novel, My Name is Mary Sutter (Viking 2010) is a fictionalized account of Mary Sutter's journey to become a doctor during the Civil War. What is it about the past that inspires this author? On her website (robinoliveira.com), she admits that, "[The] gap in the historical record is the entry point for historical fiction — at least it is to me… [and] I love doing the research. I am never more at home than I am in a library."
So when she learned that Mary Cassatt had not only burned all the correspondences she'd shared with Edgar Degas throughout her life, but, upon his death, she also retrieved the letters she'd written him in order to burn as well, Oliveira started the arduous research process. She visited many museums to view paintings she would write about including The National Gallery, the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay. She spent ten days gallivanting around the streets of Paris to locate famous Impressionists' studios, apartments and haunts.
Oliveira's extensive research is evident in her intimate and familiar depictions not only of the streets of Paris but also in her renderings of the Impressionists, themselves: Monet and his incessant begging, Caillebotte's deep pockets, Morisot's unfulfilling marriage and Manet's debilitating Neapolitan disease. In her most recent publication, Oliveira succeeds not only in creating a feasible narrative of what might have transpired between Cassatt and Degas in their younger days, but her rendition of La Belle Epoque is so seamless and lively that the reader feels more like a Parisian socialite than a staid observer.