Review: Rodin's Lover: A Novel by Heather Webb

Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Title: Rodin's Lover: A Novel
Author: Heather Webb
Genre: historical fiction
Series: none
Pages: 320
Published: Expected January 27, 2015
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

A mesmerizing tale of art and passion in Belle Époque France

As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet, Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness.

Rodin’s Lover brings to life the volatile love affair between one of the era’s greatest artists and a woman entwined in a tragic dilemma she cannot escape.

Was Camille Claudel insane?

Her family certainly thought so, having the sculptor forcibly committed for the last thirty years of her life. However, the press, the hospital, and her friends disagreed. She was passionate, angry even, but no one but her brother saw a reason for her to be committed. This makes Rodin’s Lover’s decision to spend seventeen years depicting the sculptor’s descent into schizophrenia something of a strange choice.

Belle Époque France isn’t a time period I generally read, though I am familiar with the art. I was immediately fascinated with the conflict between the modern artist and her traditionalist mother, as well as Camille’s clashes with teachers and fellow students who viewed female artists as hobbyists. Yet, Camille’s mother doesn’t just disapprove of her art; she hates her child. They have a few confrontations over the next two decades, but I still don’t feel I understand why.

The focus of the novel is too broad. Scenes feel disconnected from the whole, skipping between days and months with no transition. In one scene, Rodin will be despairing of everfinishing Balzac, much less by his deadline, in the next, he’ll be at a party celebrating the opening of the monument. Camille will suffer a schizophrenic episode and vow to never see Rodin again, but in the next scene, she’ll see him at an exhibition months later and throw herself into his arms. It’s dizzying.

Paris isn’t an exceptionally large city, and the art scene was relatively small, but at a point, all of the famous people who continually turn up feels forced and inorganic. “Edmond Baziere said”, “I am Joseph Archambault”. “Émile Zola had shown”. Jules Dalou, whom Rodin did sculpt, is mentioned by his full name a dozen times, despite being a main antagonist. I had a similar issue with the last novel I read of the literati. It’s as if the author wants to show they did their research so much they fail to work the characters in naturally.

On the positive side, I found the romance sexy. The prose does tip to purple, but I found it to work considering the characters are immensely passionate artists. Their initial romance was a bit too “love at first sight”, but their connection grew to a place where the declarations of love felt appropriate. While I’m personally sceptical that Camille was nearly as ill as portrayed, Webb does a phenomenal job of depicting her slow spiral into madness. It takes an otherwise difficult character and gives her some much needed redemption and the reader a healthy dose of empathy.

The Eternal Idol
Auguste Rodin

Regardless of her sanity, Claudel is a difficult character. She’s certainly driven, but to the point of obsession, belittling others’ interests and dreams for not aligning with her own. She alienates everyone she comes in contact with. She’s prone to fits of temper, destroying her things and others’. She’s jealous, banishing Rodin’s other female students and repeatedly demanding he leave his wife. Yet she is redeemable. The final chapters are heart breaking and truly made me wonder what could have been done to save Camille from herself.

Unfortunately, I found Rodin’s Lover to be overlong and fitful. It’s hard to cover seventeen years in enough detail, without feeling like things are being drug out, and in this case I don’t think the balance worked. There are individual scenes that I liked a lot, but as a whole I’m not sold on this look at a fascinating woman’s life. 

Camille Claudel


  1. I love reading about artists, but I've never really been into the whole tragic lovers thing. For me, it always reminds me of the artists during the impressionists era. A lot of the artists during that time were having affairs and often one of them would die tragically from an illness. While I love literary fictions, sometimes it can be more depressing than it really needs to be. You know?

    This is truly a great review. You really are talented at forming a concise sentence to explain your experience of the book. I know that as a new blogger, I struggle with this part of reviewing. I rant all too often.

  2. Thanks for the review. I had never heard of Camille Claudel before this but it sounds like an intense and emotional read.
    Looking forward to reading it.
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com


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