Last night’s discussion of Stephanie Cowell’s Claude & Camille is exactly why it’s worth the monthly drive down from  Reno, Nevada to Clayton, California  in order  to participate in the Clayton Community Library Book Club. I’m prejudice, of course, but I think we’ve got an exceptional group of readers who’ve learned to listen as well as they read. Claude & Camille is one of the few books we’ve read in which the group was almost evenly split between those who thought it a decent read and those who felt strongly about it being a book they probably would not recommend.

The most common trouble spot centered around the fictional take on a character as well-known as Claude Monet. Never mind that a young Monet was not exactly a fellow to care deeply about, causing many readers to fact check against Cowell’s fictionalizing. Well, it’s a novel. It’s fiction.  So what facts ought to remain and what events can be made up? We never came to any hard conclusions, which I always find more interesting than resolution.

I was one of those who thought the book worth recommending, although after hearing all the other comments, it was easy to understand the negativity of some readers. The second comment repeated by a number of readers was that the writing was flat. I’m not sure of that.  I felt the depth of Cowell’s story was achieved in the chronology of her telling. By starting the novel in Giverny, in the twentieth century, with the mysterious accusation by Camille’s sister that he, Monet, was the cause of her sister’s death, the author immediately suggests that there is a mystery about this artist. These respite vignettes from Giverny occur throughout the novel and give the reader insight as to the more mature character of Monet before returning to his and Camille’s youth.

But the discussion continued to return to the subject of historical fiction and biographical historical fiction. Most of those who did not care for the book did, however, think that had Cowell written a novel about an unknown artist and his model/mistress/wife the reader might not have brought so much distrust to their reading.

In May we will be reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It will be fun to read this so soon after Claude & Camille. Although there are plenty of historically authentic characters mentioned in Mitchell’s book, Jacob de Zoet is an entirely new kid on the block. And as much as one of the blurbs on the back of Mitchell’s book infers that the novel is a romance, it is small potatoes compared to the outrageous and pandering cover of Cowell’s book. The book club was 100% united in their disbelief that the publisher of Claude & Camille  published its trade edition with that cover. Book covers and their targeted markets is another blog in the making.

I just want to say how much fun it is to be a part of the Clayton Community Library Book Club. If you are a reader who’d like to take part in the book club, but live out of the area, join us if you see a selection that interests you. We’d love to hear your comments.    – Sunny Solomon




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