#BookReview — La Luministe by Paula Butterfield
By Paula Butterfield
Above all, Berthe Morisot yearns to be a professional artist. Despite the skepticism of her parents and the male-dominated conservatism of the Parisian art world, Berthe pursues her artistic passion. Chafing under the tutelage of traditional masters, Berthe is mesmerized by Paris’ most revolutionary artist, the debonair Édouard Manet, whose radical paintings reflect a brash modern style. Berthe consents to model for Édouard and in the process falls deeply in love, an affair that both must keep hidden from the world, for Édouard is married to another.
As the city of Paris is convulsed by the Franco-Prussian war, and dark family secrets are revealed, the lovers are driven apart. Berthe, after enduring the horrors of a city under siege, and suffering from recurring depression, marries Édouard’s brother, the mercurial Eugène Manet. Quiet married life is not for Berthe, however, and she—along with her infamous contemporaries, who include Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet—develop the radical painting style that challenges the stifling traditionalism of the Salon: Impressionism. Collectively, they deem Berthe’s light-infused paintings the most avant-garde works of them all.
La Luministe is the story of a woman driven by determination for professional recognition in a conservative art world equally determined to deny her a place. Despite her thwarted hopes for love and the physical rigors of war, Berthe Morisot emerges as one of art’s most remarkable women.
"I was baffled about my feelings for Manet. Was I falling in love with him, or did I wish I could be him?"
A poet cannot write poetry, they say, without first experiencing heartbreak. Likewise, an artist cannot call themselves an artist without the approval of the Académie. But there was one who was daring enough to break the rules of technique and subject matter. Édouard Manet's was a renegade, his work considered offensive, and yet the man himself was charming, charismatic, and utterly captivating.
Oh, how Berthe Morisot wanted to be a real artist. She did not want a husband and children as other women did. What Berthe and her sister dreamed of was becoming celebrated independent artists. However, although Manet gained fame by breaking the rules, when Berthe tried to do the same, she only got in trouble. Her darling Maman became even more determined to find Berthe a husband, but despite the many suitors, none of the men Berthe met convinced her that domestic bliss would be better than a life with just a pallet, a paintbrush, and endless possibilities.
But then on one day, one auspicious autumn morning, Berthe met Édouard Manet. Despite her determination to dislike him, Berthe found that she craved his touch. Berthe longed for his eyes to be focused on her face, and hers alone. And she was desperate for his conversation. Berthe understood Manet as no one else did, and he understood her. She was his canvas. He was her light. Berthe's greatest fear was that she was condemned to love him forever.
From the soaring, arched, glass skylights of the Louvre, to an invitation to join les Independents, La Luministe by Paula Butterfield is the unforgettable story of Berthe Morisot and a secret that she would take to her grave.
As Manet once said, "It is not enough to know your craft – you have to have feeling. Science is all very well, but for us, imagination is worth far more." Never a more accurate word was spoken, and although Manet was talking about his profession, I believe what he said applies to all of the arts, but it is true especially when it comes to writing historical fiction. A Bard can write a pretty story about the past, but a Master Bard can breathe life back into people who have been dead for many years. Butterfield is such a bard — she is such a writer. No one else could have written the story of Berthe Morisot the way Butterfield has. Butterfield's mesmerising narrative seduced me, and with a stroke of the brush, I found myself transported back in time to an era that was as foreign as it was revolutionary. This was a time of poetic lawlessness, where one man dared to try something different, and by being controversial, by doing his own thing, Manet paved the way for those, for the most part, penniless artists, whose paintings now sell for millions. This was the beginning of the Impressionists movement — with their bold brushstrokes, their dramatic use of colour and light. They immortalised a snapshot of life in one sacred moment. Butterfield has captured the excitement, the despair, the ridicule and the triumph in all its naked glory. In this book, we see the birth of Impressionism, and we watch as it is let loose upon the world in a storm of dazzling light and emotions — it yells from the rooftops that life is not symmetrical and nor is art. But above everything else, Butterfield has written a book that honours that enduring condition of human frailty that we know more commonly as love. Butterfield seemingly cries that love cannot be denied, and nor should it, for look what happens when it is. A tragedy. A curse. A missed opportunity for something better, something more — something that reminds us of the very reason for living. The emotion is raw. The prose is not.
This book is heartbreakingly beautiful because of the honesty of its heroine. Berthe is an intelligent woman who is incredibly driven, and this in a time when women had so many social and career limitations put upon them. Berthe knows that she and Manet can never be, but her heart cannot catch up with what her head is telling her. She loves him, and there is nothing she can do about that, even by marrying his brother, her love for Manet does not extinguish. This is a tragic love story that is as irresistible as it is enthralling. Once started there was no way I was going to put this book down, it captured my attention in the very first paragraph and, as I neared the end, I found myself desperately trying to read more slowly. I dragged out the final chapters because I did not want this story to end. I did not want to leave this place, these characters. Ever. But, as with all good things... I feel richer having read La Luministe, and despite the devastating ending, which I knew was coming, I would read it again and again.
There are no false idols in this book, Manet has his faults, but he is a loveable rogue, a very caring man underneath a veneer of indifference and indulgence. When in Berthe's company, we see the real Manet, the one hidden from the illustrious society that he keeps. Although this book is told for the most part from Berthe's point of view, Butterfield has presented her readers with letters from Manet to Degas, where Manet shares his innermost thoughts and desires. These letters were as moving as they were telling, and Butterfield allowed her readers to glimpse at the man behind the illness that would kill him, behind the paintings that he is so famous for.
One might think that when the hero of a book dies of something as awful as untreated syphilis, that there would be darkness to this story — an ugliness. There are dark moments, not only with regards to Manet's illness but also the Franco-Prussian War and The Siege of Paris, but there is nothing ugly about this book or these characters, not even when Manet is so ill, his passion, the way he sees, the way he thinks is so vivid in the telling. He is portrayed as the kind of man who could not, who would not ever die — there was too much life in him for that, too many paintings that he needed to paint. Still, as so often is the case, those who burn the brightest, burn the shortest. So, I warn you, have a box of tissues near to hand when you read this book, you are going to need it.
You don't have to be an expert on the Impressionist movement to enjoy this book. You don't even have to know who these artists are because Butterfield is an exceptional tour guide. But if you are, as I am, a lover of these artists and their work, then this book is a must-read.
What I loved about this book was that you could look up the paintings that are described as you read it, and by doing this, it made me feel an even stronger connection to the writing. With that in mind, as well as the tissues, I do recommend having Google to hand as well.
There is nothing about this book I did not love. It is an exceptional work of art. La Luministe, by Paula Butterfield, is utterly arresting from start to finish.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Paula Butterfield was born in New York and raised in Portland, Oregon. A writer since she could write, her first works were plays performed on a window seat with her little sister. As an art history student, Paula was struck by the fact that her textbooks contained few women artists. Was is possible that there were none worthy of mention? After earning her MFA in Professional Writing from the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California, Paula worked as a story analyst for United Artists. Again, she came across few stories about women. But later, in the process of developing and teaching college courses about women in the arts, she discovered a wealth of stories and felt compelled to write about them. La Luministe, her debut novel, won the Chanticleer Book Reviews first place award for historical fiction. Paula lives with her husband and daughter is Portland, Oregon and on the Oregon coast. Still committed to sharing women's stories, she is currently working on her next book about two rival American artists.