Mademoiselle Victorine, by Debra Finerman, 2007, historical fiction
What made you want to read this book?
A few years ago I read Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, both fictional accounts of the life of Vermeeer, before traveling to New York City with a friend and touring the Vermeer exhibit there. Since then I have enjoyed reading novels about painters, such as Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia about Artemisia Gentileschi and Luncheon of the Boating Party about Auguste Renoir. And now this one, about Edouard Manet.
On a humid August afternoon, wedged between her two aunts in the third-class coach of a locomotive, trickles of sweat dripped down Victorine's ribs. Thirteen years old, her first train trip.Summarize the book without giving away the ending.
Victorine was being abandoned by these two older women. One of them said,
"We've fed you and looked after you all these years, haven't we? Since the day you were born. You're on your own now, so you'd better find yourself a way to survive, because we ain't taking you back."This was when Victorine decided,
I'll find my place in this world ... I'll do whatever necessary and I'll never look back.What did you think of the main character?
I could see already that Victorine was a strong-willed girl. After a few years on the streets, she joined the Paris Opera ballet, expecting to become the mistress of a wealthy man. The artist Degas introduced her to Edouard Manet, who eventually painted her (see the cover photo above) and shocked Paris. She continued to move up through society by attracting men of higher status. How high would she rise? Would she survive by her wits?
Were location and time period important to the story?
This was the time when Impressionist painters were coming into their own, though many saw them as disrupting the classical art world. So I'd say, yes, being in Paris during the time shown in the book was very important: 1858 to 1871.
What did you like most about the book?
For me, it was learning about Manet's art. He didn't like chiaroscuro, the bold contrast between light and dark, and Victorine had picked up on that, though Manet's student Julia is just learning about it:
"Julia, I want to show you something," Edouard called out as he extracted a sheaf of papers from a desk drawer. "First lesson of the day: how to look. Here's a photograph by Nadar. What do you see?"Later, three friends are talking about Manet. Andre tells Victorine and Baudelaire (yes, THE Baudelaire), "It had all the elements of [Manet's] signature style: the flat lighting, the handling of black paint, the unconventional use of pictorial space" (p. 139). So now, should I find a Manet exhibit to visit, I'll look carefully at the lighting!
"I'm not sure what you mean," she replied.
Victorine smiled; she knew the answer. It was the absence of chiaroscuro.
"Is there chiaroscuro, any subtle shading?" he asked.
Victorine knew that Edouard eschewed the academic tradition of chiaroscuro, which had dominated oil painting since the Renaissance. He had told her it was artificially created by a single light source from a high, north-facing window, and that northern light was cool and unchanging, carving deep shadows on the body. When Edouard posed Victorine, he utilized natural light from a wall of windows in his studio that fell full face on her, the exact technique used in photography.
"Next, look at these Japanese woodcut prints." He displayed some illustrations of Mount Fuji. "What do you see?" he asked.
"Flatness. Bold, simple design," Julia answered by rote. Victorine saw that she was gazing at Edouard's lips, not at the prints in his hand.
"Very good. And this is similar to..."
She was silent.
"Similar to photography," he said. "Julia, don't rely on your optical eye. Trust your artist's eye. Remember what I told you. Bad art is bad because it's anonymous. An artist shouldn't be like anyone he has ever seen or even anyone who has ever existed."
Julia searched his eyes and said nothing.
"All right, then," he said. "That's enough theory" (pp. 93-94).
What did you like least?
Victorine's constant dalliances as she moved from wealthy man to wealthier man. This may be a selling point for those who enjoy romance novels, however.
What about the ending?
The "astonishing secret from Victorine’s past" mentioned on the back cover was so unlikely, but by then it didn't really seem to matter. I did keep wondering how much of the book was historical and how much (including this "secret") was fiction. At the end of the book is an Author's Note about the characters, some of whom were composites.
What do you think will be your lasting impression of this book?
Manet's art and the hypocrisy of Paris about the use of a nude model. I will be recommending this book to discussion groups for a couple of very good reasons: there is so much to discuss, and the paperback has a Reader's Group Guide. I wish I had read the questions before reading the book, so I could have taken notes toward answering the questions as I read. There really are no spoilers among the questions.
How would you rate the book?
Rated: 8/10, very good.