I Always Loved You: A Novel

I Always Loved You: A Novel

by Robin Oliveira


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A story of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, from the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter

Robin Oliveira’s latest novel, Winter Sisters, will be available in February from Viking

The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is begging her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever. Years later she will learn that he had begged for the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships.

In I Always Loved You, Robin Oliveira brilliantly re-creates the irresistible world of Belle Époque Paris, writing with grace and uncommon insight into the passion and foibles of the human heart.

For readers of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594597308
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Robin Oliveira is the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter. She holds a BA in Russian and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow. She received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is also a registered nurse, specializing in critical care. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for My Name Is Mary Sutter

 “Think of Mary Sutter as a northern Scarlett O’Hara without the man-killer good looks or feminine wiles; more a Louisa May Alcott Plain Jane with a will of scalpel-sharp steel…Oliveira… peels back Mary’s vulnerable, human side in this intriguing slice of Civil War history.” – USA Today
 “The title of Robin Oliveira’s debut historical novel, My Name Is Mary Sutter, perfectly evokes its eponymous heroine’s style: clear, determined, and, unlike most women of the Civil War era, unapologetically direct.” – O, The Oprah Magazine 
“This work of fiction is built on years of research. The payoff comes in the rich details of this feminist story, which follows a young midwife from her upstate New York home to battlefields of the South as she pursues her ambition to become a surgeon…more than a dozen women who went into the Civil War as nurses did indeed emerge as physicians. “My Name Is Mary Sutter” give an idea of the immense sacrifices these women made in terms of social acceptance, close relationships and personal health.” – The Seattle Times 
“At the center of Robin Oliveira’s enthralling and well-researched debut novel is an ambitious young woman who refuses to accept the limited roles women played in the field of medicine during the mid-19th century…With war as her canvas, Oliveira captures the campgrounds and battlefields of Virginia as vividly as the scenes of Mary’s midwifing, and the book’s sensuous language, wealth of period details, and unflinching descriptions of battles like Manassas and Antietam place it solidly in the ranks of the best historical fiction. [A] Believable, nuanced…sweeping portrait…Absorbing drama about a little-known side of the Civil War.” – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 
“There's more than a whiff of the classic in Robin Oliveira's compulsively readable historical tale about Mary Sutter, a young midwife and aspiring physician making her way through Lincoln's war—a new iconic American heroine.” – Janice Lee, author of The Piano Teacher
“A simply remarkable book. Robin Oliveira brings the Civil War era vividly alive with a heroine no reader will ever forget.” - Ron Rash, author of Serena
"A vivid, dramatic novel about love, medicine, and the Civil War, My Name Is Mary Sutter features an indomitable, memorable heroine whom the reader will root for until the very end." – David Ebershoff, author of The 19th Wife and The Danish Girl


Reading Group Guide

"Mary thought that the art of love might just be blindness: the willingness not to see the truth of anything, to blur life's sharp edges and drift on an impression of one's own making, to act as if the life you lived was the life you wanted" (p. 196).

Paris, 1877. Mary Cassatt is at a crossroads. An American expatriate, Cassatt has spent the last several years in Europe, studying painting and working to establish herself as an artist. When none of her pieces are accepted into the annual École des Beaux Arts Salon, she is crushed and contemplates returning to America. But soon after, Cassatt meets her idol, Edgar Degas, a forceful and charismatic man, who overturns all her plans.

A few days before they are introduced, Degas notices a lone woman at the Salon. "The mystery woman was not beautiful . . . but her strict self-possession appealed for its singularity alone" (p. 25). He attempts to speak to her, only to lose her in the crowd. So when a friend presses Degas to meet an ardent admirer, the usually unflappable artist is stunned when Cassatt turns out to be the very woman he had pursued.

Although he had never met her in person, Degas had been struck by Cassatt's work. He invites her to abandon the Academy and exhibit the following year with a nascent group of renegades who call themselves the Impressionists. "You will no longer have to subject yourself to the parsimonious Salon jury; you will paint what you wish to paint" (p. 43).

Instead of giving up art, Cassatt finds herself sipping champagne with members of Degas's coterie, including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet, and Auguste Renoir. Cassatt longs to throw herself into new paintings and live up to Degas's faith in her talents, but complications unexpectedly arise.

Cassatt's father, mother, and invalid sister, Lydia, announce that they are leaving Philadelphia and will soon join her to live in Paris. The news brings Cassatt both joy and anxiety. She dearly loves her family-especially sweet-tempered Lydia-but she is expected to find and furnish accommodations that will satisfy both the family's budget and her father's capricious tastes.

Two women buoy Cassatt during this difficult time: Abigail Alcott, a friend and the sister of Louisa May Alcott, and Berthe Morisot, the only other female Impressionist and Manet's sister-in-law and former mistress. Morisot tutors Cassatt on how to navigate the fractious Impressionists and, in particular, cautions her against succumbing to Degas's charm. "You haven't known him long enough to know that his regard can easily be withdrawn" (p. 93).

Initially, Cassatt is reluctant to think ill of Degas-and all Paris knows that Morisot herself is still in love with her husband's brother. Why should Cassatt listen? Soon enough, however, she discovers the truth behind Morisot's cryptic warning. Nothing-and no one-is more important to Degas than his art.

Painstakingly researched and dazzlingly rendered, I Always Loved You is a bravura performance by the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter. Through the dual prism of Cassatt and Degas's unconventional romance and Morisot and Manet's tortured affair, Robin Oliveira awakens a bygone Paris animated by the indelible personalities and passions of the men and women who changed art forever.


The New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira holds a BA in Russian and an MFA in Writing. She lives in Seattle, Washington.


Your previous novel, the New York Times bestseller My Name Is Mary Sutter, was also set in the nineteenth century. What is it about this period that captures your imagination?

The nineteenth century, in human terms, is fairly recent, and in historical terms is well documented in both the details of everyday life and historical events, rendering research relatively easy. I'm very interested in mixing fact and fiction, in setting my fictional characters in a realistic, historically accurate landscape. Nineteenth-century guidebooks, newspapers, photographs, diaries, street maps, etc., are all readily available; earlier centuries' are less accessible. My characters adhere to real train and boat schedules, museum hours, and eat at contemporary restaurants. There is something grounding for me in having my characters operate in the same circumstances as those who lived in the nineteenth century. And I suppose I have a romantic notion of life then, which is probably less based in reality than I'd like to think.

What inspired you to intertwine Cassatt's story with that of Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot?

In the structure of a novel, a subplot expands the main plot by contrasting and mirroring the story arc of the main characters. That is to say, the subplot comments on, reinforces, and delineates the main story by illustrating a different approach to the same conflict. In I Always Loved You, one of the conflicts is impossible love between soul mates. Once you undertake a study of the lives of the Impressionists, the pairing of Cassatt/Degas and Morisot/Manet is quite obvious. I am but one of many students of Impressionism who have recognized the parallel dynamics between the two couples. From a writer's point of view, I was thrilled to discover the connection, because it served my literary needs very well: their differing circumstances and approaches to their similar predicament presented the perfect plot and subplot.

As a writer, it must have been fun to write the scene in which Degas and Zola debate the superiority of their respective art. Zola says, "Here is the difference between writers and painters. You are handicapped by your medium, paint, whereas a writer is a savant of sorts, using our more facile medium of words to inquire about and observe any subject. . . . Words reign" (p. 77). Do you agree with the argument he expresses?

I believe that paint is as facile and powerful a medium as words. The Impressionists revealed their own politics and views on contemporary society just as Zola's essays and novels did; their themes mirrored one another. Zola's realist novels L'Assommoir and Nana commented on modern life in the same way the Impressionists' paintings did. No one can look at Degas's In a Café and not understand his politics, nor can one look at any of Pissarro's peasants-at-work paintings and not recognize his socialist leanings. Painters and writers alike were commenting on modern life with equal force.

The Impressionists both reviled and revered Zola. A compatriot of change, he was one of the first to champion their exhibitions, but he was often severely critical and arrogant in his critique; he also cruelly portrayed his childhood friend Cézanne in the novel L'Ouvre. I gave Zola those words in I Always Loved You to show that this conflict became an essential element of their interactions.

After Mary Cassatt's first exhibition with the Impressionists, she is crushed by an abundance of negative reviews, including one that said, "The work of Madame Mary Cassatt betrays a preoccupation with attracting attention, rather than an attempt to paint well" (p. 200). Are they based on the original reviews or are they verbatim excerpts?

All the reviews are verbatim excerpts, with the caveat that I was their translator and, since I am not a native French speaker, may have made some errors. Wherever possible, I include the actual documents that pertain to whichever piece of historical fiction I'm writing. For instance, in My Name is Mary Sutter, I hunted down the original Sanitary Commission report on the Union Hotel Hospital, which took some doing. In the case of Mary Cassatt's reviews, there was such a plethora of available authentic contemporary reviews that I deemed invention irresponsible. And the critics were so creatively insulting! I don't think I would have been as original. And I loved that some of the critics also got her name and marital status wrong. That irked Cassatt and certainly would have irked me. Furthermore, the critics differed so greatly from one another in their opinion of her work; it was a pleasure to reveal Cassatt's varied critical reception. I couldn't have altered the reviews in any way that would have improved on the originals.

Lydia Cassatt suffered from a painful and lingering illness that goes unnamed in the novel. Does history record what it was?

It is believed that Lydia Cassatt died of what was then called Bright's Disease. This disease title encompassed several conditions of inflammation of the kidneys, but the specific illness that afflicted Lydia cannot now be accurately identified from this distance in time. Nephritis, chronic pyelonephritis, or hypertensive nephrosclerosis are all possibilities. Modern treatment offers a variety of medications and antibiotic and, in the worst cases, dialysis, but these treatments were unavailable then. Lydia's symptoms progressed and led to renal failure and premature death.

Degas's losing battle with macular degeneration is one of the most tragic aspects of the novel. How many years did he live after he was no longer able to paint?

It is difficult to know exactly when Degas gave up painting, but the decline is generally believed to have been complete by 1909. Prior to that, he had begun to work only on very large canvases and smaller wax sculptures (Edgar Degas, Rizzoli). He died in 1917.

Is there any documented proof that Cassatt and Degas had-however briefly-a love affair?

The only documented proof would have been a letter or, failing that, a diary entry that we could authenticate. Since Cassatt burned all their letters before her death, there is no way of knowing for certain what went on between them on any given night of their lives, just as we cannot know for certain what happens in the lives of our neighbors or friends. What we do know is that they shared an uncommon love of art and one another that kept them emotionally tied until their deaths, despite the volatile nature of their relationship. My portrayal of a night of passion is, of course, conjecture, but given the nature of friendships between men and women, I believe it is well within the realm of possibility.

In your Author's Note, you write about being in Paris and unexpectedly seeing a clay mask taken of Degas's living face. What are some other highlights of your research trip?

There were many other wonderful moments, especially in the basement of the Musée d'Orsay. Aside from the startling mask, the most poignant objects were the series of Degas's increasingly darker smoked eyeglasses, which highlighted for me how great his visual handicap was and its inexorable progression. Of equal importance was finding Degas's last studio and apartment, where he lived and worked in his last years and where he died. I visited Morisot's and Manet's common grave at the Passy Cemetery; they rest together in the same grave with Suzanne, Édouard's wife, and Eugène, Morisot's husband and Édouard's brother. This eternal connection cemented for me how intimately entwined they were in life. Cassatt's footprint in Paris is less defined, but I was thrilled to look up at the Avenue Trudaine apartment and imagine her life there, as well as walk in her footsteps to her first separate studio, which, ironically, was situated on the site of Degas's last studio.

What are you working on now?

Another historical novel. I can't really talk about it as it's still taking shape, but it will begin in the nineteenth century and take place in Albany, New York, Saint Lucia, Paris, and St. Petersburg, Russia.


  • In Robin Oliveira's novel, it's clear that Mary Cassatt and Edward Degas genuinely loved each other. Might they have found happiness in marriage? Would their art have been diminished or elevated by the relationship?
  • It seems extraordinary that one organization, the École des Beaux Arts, once held such power in determining what was considered "good" art. Yet in our own era, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art will attract more reviews and attendees than any show in an independent gallery. Does this kind of official validation ultimately have a positive or negative effect on art, literature, music, and other creative commodities?
  • After she meets Degas, Cassatt thinks, "People were always asking artists that inane question. Don't ask me how I do what I do. . . . But hadn't she asked Degas the same thing in his studio?" (p. 112) Why are we drawn to understand other people's creative processes?
  • Mary Cassatt's father, Robert, is indifferent to the needs of anyone beside himself. To what extent did his attitude toward the women in his family influence Mary's attitudes toward marriage and her relationship with Degas?
  • While Mary Cassatt is still struggling to make her name, her father asks her, "What is the purpose of any endeavor if not to make money? And how does an artist tell whether or not he is successful?" (p. 130) How would you answer his questions?
  • As depicted in Oliveira's novel, many legendary artists-not to mention the writers Émile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé-were part of the same circle. How did their association help them achieve success? Do you think all of them would have achieved fame independently?
  • Degas treated his "rat," Marie, quite cruelly while she modeled for his wax sculpture of a ballet dancer. Does great art justify the collateral damage of its creation?
  • The novel intimates that Édouard Manet married his father's mistress and that Berthe Morisot married Édouard's brother, Eugène. Do you empathize with their decisions?
  • So many of Cassatt's later paintings capture the love between mother and child. Yet she herself was childless. Do you think she could really understand this particular form of love? Why or why not? If you were a woman living in an era when childbirth put your health-and often your life-at risk, do you think you would have been willing to take that chance?
  • Manet died at the height of his powers, whereas Degas lived for years unable to create. In your opinion, which artist suffered the worse fate?
  • To whom does the novel's title, I Always Loved You, refer?
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    I Always Loved You: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
    jlking More than 1 year ago
    I ALWAYS LOVED YOU begins slowly and the story develops quietly, but the novel as a whole is more like an Impressionist painting, which begins as a blurry image and subtly, through many layers, becomes something significant, beautiful, resonant. At least, that is my experience with reading I ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira. The relationship between Degas and Cassatt begins tenuously, and builds and falls throughout, but it is in the moments shared between the pair, in the pull and tug of conversation and gesture, that the genius of this novel develops. By the final page, the tenderness between Cassatt and Degas is palpable and moving. It is in the pages between the first and last that the reader comes to know and understand the complex relationship between two of history's most important artists. I personally love the way the author worked each layer of their story, the subtlety of their relationship and the way Cassatt and Degas spurred one another on. It is an intimate story so beautiful I read it with a pen in hand, to note the passages which struck me. I ALWAYS LOVED YOU is about art and the struggle of the artist to balance their passion with life, love, and friendship, and to serve the work which already lives inside their hearts and heads. It is a tribute to those who have overcome the attacks of critics, of those who do not understand art or beauty, and is a testimonial to the brilliance of love in helping us to become who and what we are meant to be. I ALWAYS LOVED YOU is a book I recommend to all artists, to those who enjoy a delicate, masterful novel. It is a story which will linger in memory for its truth. I ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira is now one of my favorite books of all time.
    irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
    Great Disappointment. This author's first novel, 'My Name is Mary Sutter' is one of my favorite novels of the last ten years--maybe ever. I had waited eagerly for a follow up, and while the premise of this book is promising (the Impressionists and La Belle Epoque Paris), for me it absolutely fell flat. Ultimately, I did not feel this novel WENT anywhere. I got to the end and thought, 'That's it?' Oliveira is a fine writer; I'm wondering if it's just the subject matter that is the problem. Plenty has already been researched, dissected, and analyzed on the Impressionists; it's easy enough to Google any one of this colorful cast--Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro, etc--and find out what you want to know. Additionally, with the exception of Cassatt, her friend Abigail Alcott (Louisa May's sister), and Cassatt's family, there was no I liked or wanted to know more about. Degas comes across as emotionally abusive to everyone in his life and manages to alienate just about everyone; Manet is just about as bad, and the others are depicted in page after page of the kind of pompous, self-absorbed, pretentiousness, that made me want to scream. There is a great deal of backstory on how certain pieces were conceived and created--it drags--and endless debates on the nature of art, what makes something artistically valuable, is realism better than impressionism? Then there are the woman (including Cassatt) who put up with this and often suffer the emotional fall out. The Impressionists have always been some of my favorite artists; I have been very fortunate to see many of their pieces in museums and galleries around the world. Anyone familiar with the work will recognize the descriptions here, but with the exception of Mary Cassett, I can't say I would want to know any of these people. I will wait for the author's next effort, and I will continue to enjoy the art described--separate from the probable personalities of their creators.
    jpcoggins More than 1 year ago
    I was kind of disappointed with this second book, honestly.  I had so enjoyed her first novel about Mary Sutter.  And I've read many of Susan Vreeland's books about artists, so when she endorsed the book I expected to really enjoy this story.  Overall it was just kind of a sad story that never redeems itself.  I found the storyline hard to follow too.  One of my own family members is an artist, so I realize that creative people are not always happy, or joy-filled.  However this book focused too much on the negative, and didn't invite the reader into the exultant highs and fulfillment that motivates artists to keeping making things of beauty.  If you are looking for insight into the life of art, I recommend Susan Vreeland instead.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    AnnieAA More than 1 year ago
    Degas and Mary Cassatt will live on in their masterpieces. If you want to be taken to a time when and where they lived and loved please read I Always Loved You…Robin Oliveira did an excellent job of filling in the pages…I am inspired to read about the paintings and sculptures now that I am reminded of the joy and pain that it took to create them.. I cried. A good thing. I never did that while reading a book….
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I found the book much more disappointing them the author's previous effort (My Name is Mary Sutton). If you like art history or descriptions of how artists use color in their paintings you would probably enjoy this. The human story takes backstage to the artist craft, which is maybe what she was intentionally trying to create. Descriptions of Paris are very well done but the characters are not central to the story with the exception of Degas.
    KimBullock More than 1 year ago
    I knew from the first page that this was a novel that would stay with me well after I finished it. When I came to this passage on page 43, after swallowing a lump of writer’s envy, the book shot into my top ten books of all time: “Mary thought he might as well have said he had seen her at her bath, had seen the imperfections of her figure, had spied the most personal things about her. Instead, he was undressing her mind and rummaging around in the pleats and folds of her brain, a voyeurism more intimately invasive than any physical violation would have been.” This passage was taken from the scene where Mary Cassatt first meets Edgar Degas. That tired old cliché about being able to cut the sexual tension with a knife does no justice to Oliveira’s portrayal of their relationship. In this case, you can’t chop through the tension with an ax. Every glance, every touch, nearly every word exchanged between the two is charged. The scenes where one or the other creates art in presence of the other are especially sensual. While it is not necessary to have knowledge of the Impressionists to enjoy I Always Loved You, it will add a further layer of tension if you do. Any love story involving Edgar Degas could not be conventional in scope and will not involve a happily ever after unless the author takes major liberties with history, which Oliveira does not. What she does do, brilliantly, is find the story hiding in a gap of known history. After Degas’ death, why did Mary Cassatt search his apartment for her letters to him? Why did she burn she burn both sides of the correspondence when she sensed her own end neared? Interwoven into the novel is a second, yet equally doomed, love story between painters Édouard Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot. Some reviewers thought this story detracted from the first, but I disagree. I believe it enhanced readers’ understanding of the societal constraints of the time and served as an interesting foil to the Degas/Cassatt plot line. I made the mistake of reading the ending of I Always Loved You at a local Starbucks, mentally cursing my eyes for clouding up (much like Degas’) and preventing me from reading easily. It wasn't until I closed the book that I fully realized the “cloud” was tears. On my way out, the barista asked what book I had been reading because she wanted a copy. I Always Loved You is literary historical fiction at its best. Highly recommended.
    bettysunflower More than 1 year ago
    This is the story of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas during a time of great changes in the art world of Paris. Mary had moved to Paris from America to pursue a career as an artist to learn for the locals. It was there that she met Edgar who offered to help her show her work. They seemed to have an a rather unusual relationship but fairly understandable for the time period. It is pretty obvious that they loved each other. However, they never seemed to be able to give each other what was needed. The strength of this book is the author's incorporation of the growth of certain styles of art and how they developed and the people who developed them. The characters and their interactions in relation to each other and to their art is fascinating. It also shows us how the artists seem to have to suffer in order to produce superior art. I felt the book was very well written and easy for someone with limited art history knowledge to understand and to enjoy.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    indiereadergirl More than 1 year ago
    Mary Cassatt had admired always admired Degas as an artist; what came after she never expected It’s 1877 and American artist Mary Cassatt is almost at her wit’s end, living in Paris, rejected by the Salon for the first time. She is becoming broke, with her father telling her to come home. Not knowing what to do, it is when she meets the impressionist painter she admires most that she decides to stay in Paris, until her death many years later. Edgar Degas is difficult, needy, brilliant, and ever the match for Mary. Spanning years, the novel details their tumultuous relationship; the ups- with encouragement, exhibitions, a few kisses, and kind words; and downs- periods of being frozen out, rude comments,not so chivalrous actions, and slight betrayals. The relationship, often hot and cold is hard to decipher on many ends. Told in third person narrative, Mary Cassatt and Degas’s relationship isn’t the only plot in the novel. Also taking narrative is Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot’s somewhat twisted love affair, as well. There were many famous French Impressionist name drops. However, these two couples were the center points; Degas and  Cassatt taking center stage, with Cassatt’s story the primary focus. Growing up in a house with posters of Renoir’s and Monet’s’ loving French impressionists, I was excited to read this book. I have always loved the French culture, specifically Paris, having visited there three times. I liked learning about the complicated relationship between Degas and Cassatt;but, mostly learning about her since I did not know much about her. I found Degas, sadly, whiny, immature, rude, and not a nice guy. He would allude to the almost affair Manet was having with his brother’s wife, Berthe; make promises he wouldn’t keep, like an art show and an art journal because it wouldn’t benefit him. He didn’t care it affected other people. The novel, to me, started off slow. It took me over a hundred pages to really get into it; but, I don’t think I ever was fully immersed in Nineteenth Century Paris as I hoped I would be. The descriptions were there, I just didn’t feel it as much. It did like the narrative; the writing style wasn’t very unique, or vibrant, but had consistency and was enjoyable enough. I wouldn’t highly recommend this book, but if you do like to read historical fiction novels about art, this isn’t a bad novel to choice. It focuses on a love story that isn’t very romantic at all, more platonic than focusing on art techniques; but you as a reader can still learn and appreciate certain aspects about the Impressionist movement in the late Nineteenth Century.