I really liked the portrayal of American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt in City of Darkness and Light, a Molly Murphy mystery by Rhys Bowen, which I reviewed for Book Babe here. When I did research for that review, I discovered that Mary Cassatt was a feminist. That’s why I was intrigued by I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira, a novel that focuses on Mary Cassatt’s relationship with the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
The Mary Cassatt that I encountered in Robin Oliveira’s novel contrasts with the one that I saw in Rhys Bowen’s mystery. One reason is that the mystery took place in 1905 when her circumstances were quite different than they were earlier in her life. Mary Cassatt was financially dependent on her father, Robert Cassatt, when she first arrived in Paris. Her father took even more control over her life when he and the rest of Mary Cassatt’s family moved to Paris in 1877. She had to move in with her family and had to account for every expense. Being a feminist and standing up for your rights is much more difficult when you are dependent on someone else, but Mary did manage to change her father’s opinion about her painting career in Oliveira’s novel. Her financial independence later in her life, after the death of her parents, is probably due to her father’s shift in attitude. She inherited enough money to live on her own and continue to paint.
I was pleased by Mary’s professional evolution over the course of the novel. She took the risk of allying herself with the Impressionists when the painting establishment rejected them, and the public didn’t understand their work. She was interested in learning new techniques and experimentation.
I was not at all pleased by Robin Oliveira’s portrayal of Mary’s relationship with Degas. She would stop speaking to him because he had been verbally abusive and extremely inconsiderate toward her, but then she would forgive him. She apparently loved him, but Degas was emotionally unstable. He could be very helpful and supportive to Mary, but then he would suddenly withdraw and fail to keep his professional commitments. His negative behavior tended to coincide with Degas losing faith in his own work. Given Oliveira’s portrayal of Degas, I wondered if he was in fact bipolar or was a survivor of abuse himself. The BipolarAid website lists Degas as clinically depressed rather than bipolar. I think that Degas deserved compassion, but Mary should not have allowed him to undermine her career during his bouts with depression. I thought that the characterization in I Always Loved You was painfully honest, but I was nevertheless disappointed in the way Mary Cassatt related to Degas. I wanted her to be stronger which caused me to like this novel less.