France Book Tours recently hosted a webinar featuring four authors of historical fiction who focused on French artists: “Art in fiction: Four artists, four authors”. Monet & Oscar was one of the four books featured, and I’m happy to review it today.
The opening chapter grabs the reader’s attention right away, with the first meeting between Monet and Oscar:
Oscar Bonhomme’s palms sweated as he crept from the warm kitchen filled with the spice-laden aroma of frying sausage mixed with the smell of aromatic, dark coffee and into Monet’s yellow dining room.
You’ve got plenty here for your senses, when Oscar on his first first day as a gardener comes to greet his employer, the famous Claude Monet.
This first scene is also an excellent presentation of characters, with the cranky French painter and the shy and fragile thirty-four-year-old man who just spent months in a military hospital following his participation in WWI.
But Oscar is more than a gardener, he helps Monet daily with moving paintings or the necessary material for the artist to paint outdoors.
As the book develops, we get to discover more and more elements connecting both men. And as made obvious in the title, the novel is about their relationship, its difficulties and blessings, and its ultimate revelation.
I liked how the author used Oscar’s surprise on that same day at discovering Japanese prints on Monet’s walls, to inform us more about art history.
Many other scenes throughout the book are likewise instructive (for example on Monet’s artistic development, on Renoir, or on Utagawa Hiroshige), but you never feel you are reading a textbook. You always learn through the eyes and meetings of the characters.
There are of course fabulous passages about Monet’s art and technique, for instance:
He captured the fractured light on the water’s surface and the rays filtering into the depths beneath them. No ground, no sky—just the water and the willows interwoven in patterns of colors and shapes. He looked to be painting the essence of the light that moved on the surface of the pond.
Talking of pond, its descriptions and the focus on the garden are exquisite as well, and make you want to visit or revisit the place.
Beside art, there are also passages about the French history of the time, especially around the friendship between Monet and Clémenceau (France’s Prime Minister). Incidentally, it’s thanks to the latter that the former finally accepted to undergo a cataract surgery.
And a scene reminds us of the major flooding that repeatedly affected Giverny, as documented by some of Monet’s paintings.
Actually, last time was as recently as January-February 2021, and alas Oscar was no longer present to prevent the river Epte from flooding part of Monet’s gardens.
The author followed the advice of his writing coach and introduced the character of Isabelle, an important fictional character in the world of artists.
I had some hard time with her moods and behavior for most of the book, and sometimes I thought the novel was focusing too much on the pair Oscar and Isabelle, instead of Oscar and Monet.
I am a woman, but I don’t need to have a focus on feminine characters to find a book good or even very good, nor romantic scenes.
However, because of her origin, Isabelle helps broaden the book, and shows links between the French painter and the art world in Chicago and New York for instance. From Japan to the United States, Monet was definitely known and appreciated from East to West.
Just so you know, the book focuses on the last part of Monet’s life, so there are very few mentions of Camille. Actually, the very first review on this blog, eleven years ago, was about another historical novel on Monet: Claude & Camille, by Stephanie Cowell.
It’s good to know that the author is planning on exploring further Monet’s life and work, through at least another book.
VERDICT: A historical novel full of life and emotions, a perfect means of recreating Monet’s world and his genius at capturing the essence of light.
At the end of WWI, Oscar, an American soldier in a French Army hospital, learned of his mother’s death while recovering from his war wounds. He remained in France to search for his father, an Impressionist painter, whose identity his mother never revealed. Through curious circumstances, he’s hired to be a gardener for Claude Monet. Oscar jumped at the opportunity to further his landscaping career by working in Monet’s world-famous garden at Giverny. He hoped the most renowned Impressionist could help him find his father.
Monet, tired and disheartened by his ailing health and deteriorating eyesight, took Oscar along on visits to his previous painting venues and allowed him to meet some of his art-world friends. These meetings provided insights into Monet’s life and art and clues to Oscar’s father’s identity.
On a train returning from Paris to Giverny, Oscar met and fell in love with Isabelle, a beautiful young American artist, who introduced him to the emerging 1920’s fashions and mores. She is the daughter of one of Monet’s major American clients, which interests him. Over Monet’s daughters’ objections, Isabelle and Oscar become regular guests at family gatherings as their infatuation blossoms into a unique love affair. Oscar’s past, present, and future collide in a way that he could not have anticipated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Byrd‘s BS in Journalism
and MA in Communications degrees
inspired him to become a pioneer in electronic publishing.
As a McGraw-Hill editor,
he developed one of the first computer publishing systems.
In the rapidly developing PC software industry,
he co-authored one of his two books
using PC desktop publishing software,
the first for a major publishing house.
He developed the first technical support website in the software industry.
In his fifty-year career, he published magazines, wrote research reports,
and developed conferences in the US and Europe for the digital photography industry.
He launched one of the first digital photography dot coms. This is his first novel.
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this ebook free of charge to review.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.