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Sadly, I couldn't bring myself to finish this book. After about a third I threw in the towel as I was getting bored and nervous at the same time. The chief problem has already been flagged by a number of other reviewers. The narrative is built around a timeline stretching from 1870 to 1900, with a year-by-year sequence of chapters. Each chapter is then conceived as a mosaic in which a more less fixed roster of luminaries makes its appearance. The effect is, on the one hand, highly disorienting. For example, in chapter 10 the story switches in the space of just a few pages from Manet to Dumas jr to Sarah Bernardt to the Statue of Liberty to the basilica of Sacré-Coeur to the Panama Canal to Flaubert and Goncourt. And this kind of pacing is kept up for several hundreds of pages. On the other hand, the unrelenting fragmentation brings with it a curious effect of stasis, as if one is reading the same story over and over again. McAuliffe's perfunctory development of her characters is partly to blame for that too. These famous artists, political leaders and artefacts remain two dimensional creatures, frozen in cliché-laden poses: Clémenceau the agitator, Debussy the womanizer, debt-ridden Claude Monet, thoughtful Berthe Morisot, kittenish Sara Bernhardt, ...
It seems to me that McAuliffe, in effort to dramatize these postures, at times does not adhere to what is known as historical fact. That is another major defect of this book. For example, McAuliffe describes the critical reaction to the first private, `Impressionist' exhibition in 1874 as hostile across the board, "bordering on hysteria, including warnings that this art form was so inherently vile that it threatened pregnant women and the moral order." Reality appeared to have been rather different. In Scott Schaefer's excellent essay `Impressionism and the Public Imagination' in Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape we read: "The `Première Exposition' was widely covered in the press, with about 15 articles written about it. Of ten important reviews, six were very favorable to the concept and execution of the show itself, although somewhat mixed in their opinions of the individual paintings. Four reviews were thoroughly negative. (...) three of the six favorable critics were unstinting in there praise of the artists and their works." So, McAuliffe seems to be right in asserting that the exhibition was not a commercial success, but it critical reception was far more differentiated than she makes us believe (and, perhaps, not at all unusual in 1870s Parisian critical landscape).
The impression of blandness is reinforced by McAuliffe's stilted prose that, as other reviewers have pointed out, tends to rely on fixed, formulaic turns of phrase. To me the language feels fake, feeding the suspicion that the author, despite an impressive bibliographic apparatus marshaled at the end of the book, does not master her material. Oddly, in other cases, McAuliffe fails to capture opportunities to enliven and dramatize the book's narrative by simply reciting the facts. To give just one example, by the early 1870s Edouard Manet had been painting for over a decade without really encountering critical or commercial success. In 1872 he was `discovered' by the important dealer Durand-Ruel. McAuliffe doesn't mention this fact in the chapter devoted to the year 1872, but she casually brings it up later, when the timeline has reached 1880: "... the dealer brought twenty-two of Manet's works - the first time the painter really sold anything." In Beth Archer Brombert's biography of Manet (Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat), the story assumes much more weight and relief. Citing Durand-Ruel's memoires, we learn that the dealer bought two lots of paintings on two consecutive days: one lot of 23 (not twenty-two) canvases for 35,000 francs and another lot for 16,000 francs. This would have been a remarkable windfall for any artist and Manet used to proceeds to lie low for a few months and move into a new, giant studio in a former fencing school. This is the revealing kind of detail that we miss in McAuliffe's narration. `Dawn of the Belle Epoque' is detailed in a cavalier, gossipy kind of way but does not really draw the reader into the fabric of this fascinating era. As a final example of the `wrong' kind of detail, in her discussion of the year 1886 McAuliff mentions Debussy as spending his time reading at the Villa Médicis in Rome (where he was entitled to stay as prize winner of the Prix de Rome): "... he had read widely and gravitated toward the avant-garde Symbolists (among them, André Gide, Paul Valéry, and Mallarmé)". In 1886 André Gide was just 17 years old and had published literally nothing ...
A final disappointment are the illustrations for the book. They seem to have been haphazardly thrown in. For a narrative that refers so often to paintings, landscapes, buildings and urban neighborhoods the illustrations form a vital complement to the text. Here the reader is largely left to her/his own devices.
Is it possible that Mary McAuliffe wanted to write a book that would strike the reader in the way an impressionist painting impacts our eyes? A collection of disjointed dots and brush strokes that, considered from the right vantage point, radiates with sense and life? If so, `Dawn of the Belle Epoque' unquestionably represents a failed attempt. Two stars. To be avoided.