Author Joe Byrd immerses readers in the art of Monet and his garden in this debut novel probing the grand themes of love, family, and ambition.
Injured fighting with the French army during WWI, Oscar Bonhomme takes a job as a gardener for the aging artist Monet at his beautiful estate in Giverny. Oscar hopes to find his unknown father, an Impressionist artist his talented mother met in the south of France before she moved to San Francisco to raise Oscar.
As Oscar is warmly accepted by Monet’s adult children and tutored in art and color by Monet and his friends, he learns about his background through meetings with seminal figures like Renoir and Georges Clémenceau. At the same time, women such as the wildly passionate American artist Isabelle and lovely war widow Geneviève teach him about love. When tragedy looms, Oscar finds his relationships and gardening skills tested, and family appearing in ways he never imagined.
The author’s clear love and fascination for his subjects and setting does much to carry the novel through some of its stylistic weaknesses. Oscar is a passive sort whose emotional confusion and indecision make it hard to decipher a character arc, while leading female characters fall into two categories: overtly sexual or overly nurturing. Plot points are telegraphed well in advance, and rather than delivering a payoff on suspense, key revelations, like the identity of Oscar’s father, are muddled by Oscar’s contradictory responses.
Much expository and occasionally repetitive dialogue explains Monet’s career, but the novel’s focal point and real center is Monet’s garden, which gets loving attention in descriptions of the oft-painted lilies and Japanese bridge. Monet sculpts the garden as carefully as a painting, for instance requesting Oscar plant impatiens to add “shimmer” to the landscape.
Although character development feels uneven, Byrd’s writing is smooth, the story appealing, and the setting an artistic dream. Fans of Impressionism should enjoy being immersed in this lovely, soft-toned world.
Also available as an ebook.