The snow brought many delays here at Christmas and surprises for New Year-white roads and ice, layers of black and gray, and speckled flakes that flattened and broadened the scene beyond my window-pane.
One of the surprises was Elizabeth Robards' book With Violets, sent to me from the Fiction Readers group on Gather. The doorbell rang at seven in the evening, and I tore the parcel open eagerly. Inside, the book was bright and inviting with a white-dressed figure reclining off the edge of the cover, holding violets in her hand. Something in the sharp-edged flowers or speckled grays on the dress was reminiscent of the era Robards is writing about, the time of the French impressionists. It seemed appropriate to the blurred and snowy world outdoors as well.
I settled down to lose myself in reading, and was transported to a very real depiction of Paris in the 1860s, introduced to wonderful characters with complicated lives and loves, and invited to ponder fascinating mysteries of human relationships, history and art.
As evidence of how much I enjoyed the book, I found myself looking up the main character, Berthe Morisot, on the internet as soon as I finished reading. I found a painting by her of a woman in a white dress that matched the book's cover, and another painting, by Manet, of Morisot holding a bunch of violets. As I read the articles I felt like I was reading about real people who I'd already come to know through Robard's novel.
With Violets is written in the first person, giving it an immediacy that draws the reader quickly into the era. And Robards' language, right from the start, splashes the colors of impressionism onto the page. As Morisot becomes aware of Manet in the room behind her (on page 2), she describes "patterns of speech reverberating like a symphony of color... One timbre dark and rich as umber shadows. The other, vibrant as vermillion." It sounds completely natural in the context of a young woman with paintbrush in hand, and gives an immediate insight into the way the artist thinks and experiences the world.
Sometimes the switches in tense in the book startled me, but they soon became part of the flow-a story told in vivid colors, unmixed, placed side by side like the paintings she describes. And just occasionally there were words or turns of phrase that seemed to miss the mark (but perhaps I'm too English). Touches of French, and French phrasing, are unobtrusively placed, and well-paced, giving background and flavor. And the world of Morisot and Manet is fleshed out beautifully with references to world events. I was fascinated to realize how little I had considered where the impressionists fitted into the timelines of revolution, war and politics.
At the end of the book, Avon gives a two-page "author insight," where Robards describes the awe and respect she holds for Morisot and Manet, which led her to sketch a love story of what might have been. I'd have to say, she's done a wonderful job, and I'll look forward to reading more by her. Meanwhile, if you're looking for more than your average romance, where relationships and the historical world are painted with breadth and depth, then I would certainly recommend you try With Violets by Elizabeth Robards.
© Sheila Deeth, January 2009