I picked up Robin Oliveira’s newest book, I Always Loved You, because I’d enjoyed her novel about a nurse during the Civil War (My Name is Mary Sutter). But I was also drawn to the title, which seems to contain so much nostalgia and suffering. For some reason, I picture love between two people where it never quite works out – a life together is always denied them. But their love is always present.
The author tells the story of the relationship between the two famous painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. They meet in Paris, just as Impressionism is becoming more entrenched but not necessarily accepted by art critics or the public. Cassatt is about to give up painting in Paris, but Degas persuades her to exhibit with the other Impressionists. She finds a new style of painting, and they both find love. However, theirs is a disjointed love; it comes and goes in fits and starts. They’re both artists, so, stereotypically, they’re egotistical, moody, and stubborn (though Degas much more so than Cassatt). There’s a constant tension between giving their all to each other and giving their all to their craft. Perhaps there is only so much love a person has to give. Can someone truly have it all? Is it possible for an artist to create the art she needs to create and be a wife and mother? So far (I’m not quite finished with the book), I don’t think Degas would say it is possible. He is a man for whom there are never enough hours in the day to paint, sketch, and sculpt.
The parts that are most joyous to read are those where Oliveira helps the reader better understand the inner workings of a painter’s mind – how their fingers go reflexively to their pockets to find a paintbrush when they see an image they want to capture, or the obsessive pull they feel when the work is going well and they forsake food, sleep, and friends. As someone with not a scrap of talent in the visual arts, I can still appreciate that feeling – of loving something so much that the passage of time ceases to exist. And honestly, the book has been so good, I’ve lost track of time while reading it! If you like the arts or historical fiction, this is one you won’t want to miss.