Mary Cassatt moved to Paris with the hopes and dreams of becoming a successful artist. Dejected when her paintings are rejected by the Salon, she soon finds herself in the company of some of the artists she most admires including Edgar Degas. This meeting will throw her life into a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences, triumphs and disappointments. Her ambitions to become a recognized painter finding her mark is not made any easier with her father’s lack of faith in the profession and her sister’s deteriorating illness.
I enjoy historical fiction, especially those based on actual figures in history. I adored Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls so I was curious, but admittedly a bit hesitant, to pick up this book also to do with Degas’ life. While they have that iconic artist as a common denominator, the story, style and point of view are completely different. I Always Loved You focuses mainly on two women who are also artists, and their love affair (or lack thereof) with the men in their life. The main story does revolve around Mary and Edgar, but it wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I also picked up how much the other story of Berthe and Manet were carrying relevance as well.
Understanding that the characters are based on real people, I had a difficult time connecting with the protagonists in any sympathetic way. Degas’ behaviour I found completely abhorrent and unlikable, and in that respect I had no sympathy for how Mary was around him. It felt like a coming of age story, where Mary strives to gain her footing in life and her ambition makes her strong-willed and tough. I’m not begrudging her her vulnerabilities, but I was just so frustrated with what she became like in spite of how Degas treats her and others. In that way, I suppose the title is appropriate but their interactions left a sour taste in my mouth.
Overall, it is a compelling read for fans of historical fiction and reading about the lives of the famous artists who roamed the streets in this iconic period in time. Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir… they all play a part in this story about desire. Desire for love, and desire for art.