Manet’s muse ponders color, power, sex and love in vibrant 1860s Paris.
Based on the true relationship between artist Edouard Manet and model Victorine Meurent and set on the cusp of the impressionist revolution, Gibbon’s (Thief, 2010, etc.) novel explores this landmark time in art history through the eyes of the artist’s subject. Victorine lives and works with her best friend, Denise, for whom she harbors some secret attraction, until one day they encounter a mysterious and seductive stranger who turns out to be the famous painter. At first he seems interested in having both girls together (artistically and sexually), but it is Victorine, the quiet one, who harbors great hunger (both artistic and sexual), who sleeps with him and then leaves her friend and her old life in order to become Manet’s model, ultimately inspiring his Olympia. But Victorine, like any modern heroine, refuses to serve as mere object or even as mere inspiration. Instead, it is suggested that she's responsible for triggering the creative use of color that came to define the art of this period. Her voice is sometimes immature, but she's only 17, and her self-awareness and sexual awareness are both engaging and deep. Gibbon writes in a rather fragmented style, with short chapters that often end on a “poetic” statement. (“Whatever my body wants, I give her. Bitter things as well as sweet.”) Sometimes this makes the novel feel a bit spacey, but the overall effect is lyrical and fits the shabbily gorgeous Parisian setting. There's a lot of sex, but it tends to be tasteful and concerned with equal pleasure, and it’s more hinted at than described in detail.
Fans of art history, Paris and contemporary Künstleroman like Girl With a Pearl Earring will enjoy the new perspective and the strong female voice.