Although I have read several of the books published about the mistresses and wives of famous people, and enjoyed the crafted development of their characters, this one simply did not connect with me, for some reason. It wasn’t that the story was not interesting; I think it was just too long, too repetitive and lacked enough substance to hold my interest.
Also, I listened to an audio version from One-Click, and the speed could not be adjusted. The reader breathed too heavily at times, over emoted, over pronounced each word, drawing out each syllable, and spoke so slowly, it was like waiting for a butterfly to emerge from a cocoon. Unfortunately, I never saw the butterfly. Her portrayal of the characters was not distinct enough in tone of voice, so there was little discernible difference from one to another. Male and female characters, in particular, sounded alike. That said, if you like these kinds of books and you read the print version, it might be more satisfying. At least then, you could skip pages more easily, when it got redundant.
I think the author created a fairytale love affair from a few notes and letters that she was able to acquire, especially from the correspondence that existed between Eva Gouel, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. There is no doubt that she worked hard on the narrative as the number of pages prove, but there is little truly known about the main character, Marcel Umbert, and her time in Paris. Her real name was Eva Gouel, born in 1885, died in 1915. There is little written or known about her life either. What we learn from this book is that she and Pablo Picasso were an item for a period of time, and she may have been his muse, and sometimes, his model, but was well loved or, at least, very much appreciated by him. How much of an item they really were is largely surmised by the author, but their love affair was thought to be kismet. When she and Picasso met, they were smitten with each other as if Cupid’s arrow pierced both their hearts as one. The author portrayed their forbidden love as unstoppable, moving with a will of its own, even though Picasso was otherwise involved with another woman at that same time. Their relationship profoundly changed both their lives.
Eva came from a small village in France. When she was in her mid twenties, in the first decade of the 20th century, she ran away to Paris to escape an arranged marriage and make her fortune. She managed to snag a job as a seamstress, at the Moulin Rouge. She is portrayed as an ingénue who somehow worked her way into the upper echelons of the society of artists and authors, and began to travel in their circles, often attending the coveted salons of Gertrude Stein.
I did not find the rendering of Eva Gouel credible. For someone who was supposed to be a naïve country girl, she simply seemed far too sophisticated. The repartee between the well known and accomplished Picasso, and his friends, and the supposedly artless young woman, Marcel Umbert, seemed too cultivated to ring true. Much of the dialogue was repetitive. She loved him, he loved her, he was devoted, she was devoted; they were in love. It never went further than that for me. It was simply too long and never ended with a satisfying idea of what their real relationship might have been. She gave up her virtue so easily, I was surprised, given the era and her background. It is mostly speculation and I didn’t feel captured by the author’s theories, which for me simply didn’t ring true. I could not tell which part of the narrative might be real and which was manufactured; I realize now, that was because most of it was manufactured. While the author tried to follow the timeline of events, she had little information on the relationship between Pablo and Eva and less on Eva Gouel, herself.
There is no doubt that Eva Gouel, if she was “ma jolie”, had a profound influence on Picasso for her brief time on earth, but I felt the author gave her too much credit for sophisticated reasoning on the subjects of art and writing, or too much credit for being naïve when she may have been more cunning than she appeared, and not enough credit for her simple beauty which captured the eye of the painter known as Pablo Picasso.
There was the usual famous name-dropping as there is in most books of this kind, and in addition to Stein and Toklas, we read about Maurice Chevalier, Cezanne, Georges Breck, and so many others.
I found the dialogue between characters to be trite and meaningless, at times. The book glamorized Picasso and over sexualized their relationship to create interest. I would have preferred more realistic suppositions that were more broadly described and intensely explored. The relationship seemed almost flighty at times, with Eva martyred and Picasso damned.
I suppose the reader will come away with the notion that Picasso was a womanizer and that Eva was his angel. If that was her purpose, the author succeeded, but she could have achieved that goal in far fewer words. I wondered, at the end, who was the real Madame Picasso in this book?