Fiction Review by Susan Wasserman

Dede Crane, One Madder Woman (Calgary: Freehand Books, 2020). Paperbound, 360 pp., $23.95.

One Madder WomanOur travel wings may be clipped, but Dede Crane’s latest novel, One Madder Woman, offers a sanity‐boosting escape from our tethered state: an immersion in the sensational world of late 19th century Paris. It is a restless time, punctuated by the onslaught of the Franco-Prussian war, there’s a rumbling discontent in the lower classes agitating for a better deal, a blood‐soaked civil war, and convulsive shifts in artistic sensibility. The wars’ horrific loss of life and massive physical destruction desecrated France’s sense of itself as a civilized nation. Crane takes us through these events to the other side, the country’s equilibrium settled, La Belle Époque in view.

The novel will send you running to research France’s convoluted political history and especially its stunning art. The world of One Madder Woman bustles with art exhibitions, drawing‐room soirées, and appearances from real‐life celebs such as Manet, Degas, Zola, Cézanne. Dozens of paintings, listed in an index at the beginning, are woven into the narrative, with many animated by lively descriptions of their conception, execution, and reception. With her sharp eye for detail, Crane easily shifts gears from crisp, lean prose to painterly lyricism: “The pears in the trees hung like gold pendants. Pink gladiolas bloomed a flower fence around the pigeon pens and the birds cooed, luring in the night.”

In 1874, a group of renegade artists, “La Société Anonyme Coopérative,” challenging the mainstream, launch an exhibition of their work, a scandalous move that whips affronted critics into a bombastic lather. One dismisses the show as “a roomful of fuzzy impressions. These artists are all in need of spectacles to correct their eyesight and painting lessons to teach them form.” He unwittingly christens the group with the name they would adopt: the Impressionists. Under fire are not only the seemingly crude styles—visible brush strokes and undefined human features—but also taboo subjects. The viewing public expects battle scenes, royal portraits, religious and classical images, not a sex worker’s boudoir or women hanging laundry in the yard.

Another critic brays, “These madmen and one madder woman paint as if suffering seizures.” That “one madder woman” is haute bourgeoise Berthe Morisot, a gifted painter, the sole female in the Impressionist group. Opening in the year of Berthe’s death, 1895, the novel leaps backward to 1858, tracing her story from a young woman of 16 to successful artist. Crane’s feminist re‐telling reveals the woman inside the corsets and artist’s smock. The book’s narrator, Berthe, is a perceptive and sometimes cringingly self‐conscious guide, frustrated by the demeaning societal constraints she must navigate, and laying bare her anxieties and unconventional thinking. For example, as an unmarried woman, she’s not allowed outside her family home without a chaperone, even in her 30s. Driven and ambitious, though often insecure, she seems clear about her intellectual place: “I secretly believed myself equal to any man.”

Berthe struggles to reconcile her own life with the options available to a woman of her class. Seemingly immune to public gossip, sexually casual Bohemian artist Marcello (Adèle d’Affry) fearlessly navigates the phallocentric art world by choosing a gender‐blurring name. The brazenness of her friend’s nude self‐portrait—hanging in public view!—shocks Berthe, but she is drawn to Marcello’s daring. At the other extreme, older sister Edma embodies the conventions that Berthe longs to escape. The deep bond connecting them as young women ruptures when Edma chooses marriage, motherhood, and financial security, abandoning the sisters’ covenant to remain single, devoting themselves to painting. Further splintering their mutual trust, Edma censures Berthe’s risky, furtive love for married, womanizing Édouard Manet.

Bad boy Manet is a leader in the charge toward artistic realism and upending of the Romantic ideal. He was often rejected by Academy juries: in 1863, Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” was branded by one critic as “a shameful open sore,” while his “Olympia” was criticized as “morally contaminating.” Berthe recognizes the genius in Manet’s vision: “There was no pretense of mythology or divinity. She was a naked woman, fleshy and real….”

A product of her time, Berthe still manages, in more constrained ways, to be “fleshy and real” herself. She boldly consents to model repeatedly for Manet—clothed—finagling eyebrow-raising unsupervised sessions, all the while enjoying the public parading of her otherwise sheltered social image. Limited to subjects acceptable for female artists, her own canvasses feature serene, genteel scenes of women and children, often family members, in gardens and drawing rooms. But in aligning herself with the Impressionists, Berthe paints within a progressive, even radical, framework. Later, in married life, she orchestrates the freedom to stay true to her modernist artistic path.

The title’s “madder” points as much to the emotion‐fueled state of Berthe’s intense connection to Manet as to her art. At its core this novel is a romance, like the current bounty of historical costume drama in fiction and on screen. But One Madder Woman is no Bridgerton: not campy, cloying, or sexually explicit, but unsentimentally tangled, rooted firmly in Crane’s historical research.

Fictionalized history departs from Crane’s five previous works of fiction. One Madder Woman couldn’t be more different from, say, the smaller-in-scope, contemporary Every Happy Family (2013). Yet they share a keen evocation of time and place, sensitively‐drawn characters, and complicated family dynamics. Historical fiction can be unsettling: it’s tough to know how much revision of reality, of “truth,” occurs in the service of narrative shaping. But Crane’s assured, fascinating storytelling drew me fully into her version of this history. The elaborated reality of One Madder Woman is gorgeously and convincingly its own cosmos.


—Susan Wasserman

As in The Malahat Review, 215, summer 2021