From the time I started reading, I read across all genres— except historical fiction. Historical fiction made me look the other way, reach for a mystery, a thriller, a romance— anything to make me forget all the summers my father dragged me to Civil War battlegrounds and made me read every plaque when all I wanted to do was go to the beach. Then along came the work of Erika Robuck, and my To-Be-Read-Pile immediately expanded to embrace the past. The following books made me a historical fiction fan.
1— Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck is the story of Laura Kelley, a seamstress whose choice to follow her heart in 1928 leads to a life of limitations and hardship as she tries to provide for her child who is born out of wedlock; and, how her small world explodes when she is hired to design costumes for poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s next grand tour. What I love most about the novel is how fully Robuck is able to bring the passion and wild spirit of Millay to life. It is one of her gifts as a writer— this ability to meld with her subject. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Millay often nurtures her poetic gift with behavior that is unacceptable to society. But she doesn’t care. Her purpose isn’t to please the masses, but to live as fully as she can, so her poetry will inspire others do the same. Laura covets Vincent’s free spirit. And what Vincent does with words, Laura wishes to do with fabric. She longs to spin fabric into costumes that bring the essence of the person wearing them to life. How these two conflicting souls challenge each other to take action in ways they never believed possible, and how their choices force them so see the world through the other’s eyes is the other reason Fallen Beauty is a must read.
2— The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck depicts the intense romantic relationship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as told through Sophia’s point of view.
I am entranced by her figure in a billowing crimson gown, framed by the rays of sun slipping through flimsy curtains dancing in the breeze. The scent of jasmine has filled the room from where it climbs around the doorways of La Recompensa, and I might be walking the landscape of an opium haze, which I recall fondly, from when I regularly took the drug while under a doctor’s care.
Sophia’s imagery is integral to who she is— a painter— a female painter in the 1800’s; a time when women were expected to marry and roll immediately into motherhood. The House of Hawthorne is a history of two unique artists whose love is the Muse with which they create a life most people only dream about. Their commitment and support of each other, shown through Robuck’s heart felt prose will encourage you to dream bigger, and delve into your soul’s deepest secrets to create with the wild abandon whatever it is you are meant to share.
Move over Catherine and Heathcliff, Camille and Auguste have arrived. They now stand on the summit designated for the most passionate lovers in the saddest love story of all time. Rodin’s Lover is the all-consuming, real-life affair of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin. From the first sentence to the last I was absorbed in a world of over-heightened emotions found in the artistic world of Belle Époque Paris with all the magical allure, prejudices and injustices of the time fanned out before me.
Despair hit her like an ocean wave, filled the hollow of her chest, her lungs, until she felt as if she would drown. She perched in the doorway of a condemned building and sucked in steadying breaths.
Camille’s journey to break through the glass ceiling of the Belle Époque art world is no small feat. In order to get to Paris, attain a tutor, and an atelier of her own she must agree to meet with the suitors her mother chooses. To her credit, she plays the respectability game only long enough to get herself rooted in the artistic world of her dreams. Her passion and single-minded determination to excel appear reckless at times— she alienates almost everyone she meets— but like her devotion and self-confidence, it was a quality I couldn’t help but admire. But the reason I fell in love with her and Rodin, the reason I prayed they could sort through the obstacles in their paths in order to enjoy the kind of relationship they both deserved was because of Webb’s ability to place me inside the heart of these artists.
Auguste released her as if she had bitten him. Embarrassment, then hurt crashed over him. She did not want him— of course she did not! What was he thinking.
This emotional messiness that underscores the love affair between Camille and Rodin also led me directly into the pathway of Camille Claudel’s descent into madness. Her downward spiral is delivered with such beautiful complexity I was as confused as she and, like her, wished to deny what was happening.
They argued, but their conversation muddled and sloshed in her mind. She envisioned their words as strings of pearls browning and disintegrating before evaporating out of her ears like a stream of smoke. What in the devil was the matter with her? She cursed herself for drinking too much.
Rodin’s Lover will touch the artist within you.
Tonight, I will do the impossible. The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true […] I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world.
The protagonist, the Amazing Arden, is one of the strongest female characters around. She defies the odds at the turn of the century and rises to the top of the masculine world of magic. The obstacles she needs to surmount to reach such success are delivered in her own words after she is arrested for killing her husband. The murder allegedly carried out on stage during her incredible trick of sawing a man in half. Whether she is lying about the events that led her to this moment, or telling the truth doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to me because Arden’s determination to stand against all opposition, without hesitation, is an inspiration. My empathy for Arden was so complete, I never believed I could turn away from her, even if she ended up being despicable. It is a story of unexpected twists that occur, again and again. Each shift of power between Arden and Virgil Holt— the officer who arrests and interrogates her— is expertly interwoven with the characters’ inner turmoil. This story will challenge your powers of observation more than any other.
If any of these books sparked something inside you, I hope you’ll honor that instinct and read them when the time is right for you. And if, like me, you fall in love with them, please share them with someone else.
You’re welcome to email me about any of the books listed above, or on any topic related to the books you love and, of course, your writing journey.
Thanks for listening. Enjoy!