Heather Webb’s second novel, “Rodin’s Lover,” is historical fiction, but it defies easy categorization. Rodin’s Lover tells the stirring story of the art-fueled, stormy romance between French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and his student, muse, and lover, Camille Claudel. This story is much more than a romance. Told from Camille’s point-of-view, Rodin’s Lover chronicles both Camille’s struggles with her inner demons and her efforts to gain acceptance as a woman in a male-dominated field and society.
They met in 1883, but Camille’s story began much earlier. Webb takes the reader through Camille’s childhood in Villeneuve, where she showed an early interest in sculpture. Her mother disapproved of her interest in sculpture, but her father supported it. Eventually, her father arranged for Camille to move to Paris with her ultra-rigid mother, brother, and sister in 1881. She pursued studies in sculpture under Afred Boucher, who introduced Camille to Rodin.
Webb skilfully brings to life the sights and sounds of Paris in the late 1800s, from the gaslit streets and cafes to the ateliers where sculptors did their work, often using nude models. What also comes through is Camille’s passion and devotion to her art, which borders on obsession.
Similarly, Rodin was obsessed with Camille and pursued her relentlessly. While Camille resisted him at first, they began an affair that lasted for years, but he refused to leave Rose Beuret, his longtime companion whom he married late in life.
After the affair between Rodin and Camille ended in 1892, they remained in contact. Eventually, Camille descended into madness and was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1913. She spent 30 yearrs in confinement and died in 1943. Much of the book is devoted to the affair with Rodin and Camille’s struggle to attain recognition for her art.
Much of this gripping story takes place within the intense, perceptive mind of Camille and this is where Webb’s well-paced narrative shines. Webb’s tension-filled scenes dramatically show the tumltuous relationship between Camille and her mentor.
Rodin’s Lover is a fitting follow-up to Webb’ excellent debut, Becoming Josephine.