A debut historical novel summons the art world of 19th-century Paris.
Who could have guessed that René Bernard, the son of an oysterman, would become one of the most legendary painters of the impressionist era? A childhood illness provides the opportunity to escape the family business and instead attend art school in Lyon. From there, René goes to Paris, like all the painters of his generation, to make a name for himself amid the squalor and brilliance of the city’s bohemian arts community. It is in Paris that he first lays eyes on the Flower Girl, a woman of beauty and intrigue who immediately steals his heart: “This young girl had hair of long beautiful brown curls that fell from her head and surrounded her shoulders. Her skin was as clear and unblemished as a newborn baby.” René sets out to court the Flower Girl—whose true identity is unknown—and make her his muse, though in this he is challenged by the Critic, a bane to artists everywhere who is also shrouded in mystery. Soldiers, ladies, and a trained lion round out the cast of characters of René’s colorful milieu. In a time when art can make a man famous or destroy his life, this budding painter must determine what cost he is willing to pay for immortality. MacDougall writes in a stylistic prose that brings René’s Paris to life with gritty detail: “She had a bit of a purse but dressed in rags. Tongues had come to Paris to blend in and make a life for herself, whatever that might mean. She took a room in the least expensive district, living with an alcoholic woman, and her lover, another alcoholic woman.” René’s paintings (actually created by the author, an artist) possess a certain folksy charm, but they don’t look like anything that would have been executed by a renowned impressionist. In addition, MacDougall unfortunately invests in the intricacies of his plot rather than the development of his characters: Numerous pseudonyms and hidden backstories obscure these figures, and the eventual reveals are not particularly satisfying. Ambitious and occasionally inventive, this sprawling novel never quite achieves the level of intrigue it seeks.
A vivid but messy adventure surrounding a young impressionist.