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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the few books that I've read in the past few months that offers a fascinating treasure trove of memorable facts, in this instance about Paris and the evolution of the Belle Epoque. In places it is excellent and in many others merely irritating - with abrupt changes in topic that are confusing with the most awkward of segues. Topic A is discussed, Topic B is then introduced with no continuity, to move to Topic C and then move back to Topic A where sometimes the relationship with Topic B is clarified and more often not. Clearly the author knows her subject backwards - however she frequently forgets the reader. For instance on page 57 in discussing the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the author notes that "she might not have the talent to become a sculptor". The reader stops to wonder whether sculptor was inserted in error as the previous pages were on Rodin. But no, this is correct - just the extremely awkward writing in the introduction to the section While the subject matter is never dull this book is is not an easy read and would have benefited from the input of a good editor.
The illustrations are of poor quality and not always relevant to the text while others are missing. An example of the latter is the major buildup to Mucha's Gismonda poster (p.251) which has the reader turning pages to see. It is absent while in the next few pages a photo of a statue of Dreyfus that is lacking in contrast gratuitously occupies space.
While Dr. McAuliffe is clearly an expert of Paris, she is not the most fluid of writers and there is just so much information shoe horned into limited space. There is also far too much in the way of repetition - Cesar Ritz's progression as hotelier to the wealthy is repeated in detail twice and at least 4 other times in passing and this is just one example. Others include the Statue of Liberty appearing above the roofs of houses during its construction being mentioned in several places (we got it the first time!), the Panama Canal and, inevitably the Tour Eiffel. I was also surprised about the minimal detail on the Metro. If this book were better written and edited and properly illustrated- it would easily rate 5 stars PLUS!
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 13, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Dr. McAuliffe would have benefited from some first class editorial assistance when this book was being prepared for publication. The author is well informed on her subject but ill served by her production crew.

The era and the city are almost automatically interesting. The people who strolled down the avenues of Paris then were truly remarkable. But too much is jammed into the short space of this book: economic scandals, love gone awry, the Statute of Liberty, Eiffel's tower, the great impressionists, Ritz of hotel fame, various striking women, Rodin, composers of music, the story behind "J'accuse", religion vs. state, etc. and etc.

One example of a blatant editing error: p67 describes Cesar Ritz "...his pampered guests quickly learned that wherever Ritz went, they would be assured of luxury, comfort, and scrupulous attention to their wants and needs, making a stay at one of "his" hotels truly a home away from home." Seventy pages later: "His guests, who summered in Lucerne and wintered in Monte Carlo, quickly learned that wherever Ritz went, they would be assured of luxury, comfort, and scrupulous attention to their wants and needs. In particular, Ritz's "following" knew that he would always remember their individual preferences and requirements, making a stay at one of "his" hotels truly a home away from home."
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Sadly, I couldn't bring myself to finish this book. After about a third I threw in the towel as I was getting bored and nervous at the same time. The chief problem has already been flagged by a number of other reviewers. The narrative is built around a timeline stretching from 1870 to 1900, with a year-by-year sequence of chapters. Each chapter is then conceived as a mosaic in which a more less fixed roster of luminaries makes its appearance. The effect is, on the one hand, highly disorienting. For example, in chapter 10 the story switches in the space of just a few pages from Manet to Dumas jr to Sarah Bernardt to the Statue of Liberty to the basilica of Sacré-Coeur to the Panama Canal to Flaubert and Goncourt. And this kind of pacing is kept up for several hundreds of pages. On the other hand, the unrelenting fragmentation brings with it a curious effect of stasis, as if one is reading the same story over and over again. McAuliffe's perfunctory development of her characters is partly to blame for that too. These famous artists, political leaders and artefacts remain two dimensional creatures, frozen in cliché-laden poses: Clémenceau the agitator, Debussy the womanizer, debt-ridden Claude Monet, thoughtful Berthe Morisot, kittenish Sara Bernhardt, ...

It seems to me that McAuliffe, in effort to dramatize these postures, at times does not adhere to what is known as historical fact. That is another major defect of this book. For example, McAuliffe describes the critical reaction to the first private, `Impressionist' exhibition in 1874 as hostile across the board, "bordering on hysteria, including warnings that this art form was so inherently vile that it threatened pregnant women and the moral order." Reality appeared to have been rather different. In Scott Schaefer's excellent essay `Impressionism and the Public Imagination' in Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape we read: "The `Première Exposition' was widely covered in the press, with about 15 articles written about it. Of ten important reviews, six were very favorable to the concept and execution of the show itself, although somewhat mixed in their opinions of the individual paintings. Four reviews were thoroughly negative. (...) three of the six favorable critics were unstinting in there praise of the artists and their works." So, McAuliffe seems to be right in asserting that the exhibition was not a commercial success, but it critical reception was far more differentiated than she makes us believe (and, perhaps, not at all unusual in 1870s Parisian critical landscape).

The impression of blandness is reinforced by McAuliffe's stilted prose that, as other reviewers have pointed out, tends to rely on fixed, formulaic turns of phrase. To me the language feels fake, feeding the suspicion that the author, despite an impressive bibliographic apparatus marshaled at the end of the book, does not master her material. Oddly, in other cases, McAuliffe fails to capture opportunities to enliven and dramatize the book's narrative by simply reciting the facts. To give just one example, by the early 1870s Edouard Manet had been painting for over a decade without really encountering critical or commercial success. In 1872 he was `discovered' by the important dealer Durand-Ruel. McAuliffe doesn't mention this fact in the chapter devoted to the year 1872, but she casually brings it up later, when the timeline has reached 1880: "... the dealer brought twenty-two of Manet's works - the first time the painter really sold anything." In Beth Archer Brombert's biography of Manet (Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat), the story assumes much more weight and relief. Citing Durand-Ruel's memoires, we learn that the dealer bought two lots of paintings on two consecutive days: one lot of 23 (not twenty-two) canvases for 35,000 francs and another lot for 16,000 francs. This would have been a remarkable windfall for any artist and Manet used to proceeds to lie low for a few months and move into a new, giant studio in a former fencing school. This is the revealing kind of detail that we miss in McAuliffe's narration. `Dawn of the Belle Epoque' is detailed in a cavalier, gossipy kind of way but does not really draw the reader into the fabric of this fascinating era. As a final example of the `wrong' kind of detail, in her discussion of the year 1886 McAuliff mentions Debussy as spending his time reading at the Villa Médicis in Rome (where he was entitled to stay as prize winner of the Prix de Rome): "... he had read widely and gravitated toward the avant-garde Symbolists (among them, André Gide, Paul Valéry, and Mallarmé)". In 1886 André Gide was just 17 years old and had published literally nothing ...

A final disappointment are the illustrations for the book. They seem to have been haphazardly thrown in. For a narrative that refers so often to paintings, landscapes, buildings and urban neighborhoods the illustrations form a vital complement to the text. Here the reader is largely left to her/his own devices.

Is it possible that Mary McAuliffe wanted to write a book that would strike the reader in the way an impressionist painting impacts our eyes? A collection of disjointed dots and brush strokes that, considered from the right vantage point, radiates with sense and life? If so, `Dawn of the Belle Epoque' unquestionably represents a failed attempt. Two stars. To be avoided.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Mary McAuliffe has a wonderful and entertaining way of evoking a relatively short period of amazing creativity. Her book is full of painters, musicians, composers, sculptors, architects, authors and others who are very familiar to us and have had a great impact on our culture. I found it fascinating the way she brought their lives together to create an intimate picture of their environment and how their lives intertwined. It's a very human and inspiring story and also contemporary in many ways.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is the second of Dr. McAuliffe's works that I have had the pleasure of reading recently - the first being "Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light." I thoroughly enjoyed her first work and have not been disappointed by her most recent offering. I found it to be well researched, well written and most of all, engaging. She truly brings to life her "cast" of remarkable individuals - exploring their unexpected relationships and influences, both on each other and with the city that brings them all together.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Sometime people, place, and events come together to create a nexus of creativity whose results will inspire several future generations. Paris in 1871 after the siege by the Prussians and the suppression of the "Commune" had two of the elements in such a nexus. Ms McAuliffe traces the lives of the people who become the third critical element in a burst of creativity in art and literature over the next 30 years that not only transformed Paris but also opened the 20th century to new visions. Like a novelist, she carefully traces the evolution of the characters and their creativity. Her book becomes more than just a study of a specific place and time. It is a case study in how creative change happens. Anyone interested in understanding the nature of creative change in any field - art, science or technology - would find this book worthwhile. It is also a great read for anyone who loves Paris.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Exceptionally well written and edited. It reads almost like a novel, but with the impact of a true story. I loved it and highly recommend it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I am only half-way through Mary McAuliffe's Dawn of the Belle Epoque, and I am enjoying it immensely. This is a well written, detailed, historically enhanced, and timely account of one of 19th century's artistic epochs and a chronicle of its genesis. McAuliffe captures the spirit and pulse of the age, weaving in and out of of historical flow events, juicy biographical sketches of the likes of Victor Hugo--albeit in his last years--Monet, Manet, Zola, Degas, Rodin, Sarah Bernhardt, not to mention prominent politicians and scientists, like Georges Clemenceau and Marie Curie. Her narrative style manages to link all those in one vast canvas, but doing so with the assured hand of an art historian who also know Paris and its intimate secrets like the back of her hand. Marvelous read that will enchant not only art historians but common readers who share in her travelogue through political turmoils on French soil as the backdrop for a fascinating look of the lives and works of its most prominent artists.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 13, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Dawn of the Belle Époque has a cast of hundreds, but because many of them are well known, including Zola, Monet, Marie Curie, Gustave Eiffel, Debussy, and Sarah Bernhardt, it's not hard to keep track of them. Details of individual lives are reported, I learned for instance that Degas was petulant, conservative and stubborn, but the book also has a broader scope. Almost every year from 1870 to 1900 has its own chapter, covering the politics, personalities, mood and culture of Paris as it moved toward the new century. While some aspects of the Belle Époque were not so belle/beautiful, notably the Dreyfus affair, it's a fascinating era. A hundred years after the French Revolution, France was still deeply divided. Republican heirs of the revolution clashed with anarchists, and they both brawled, sometimes literally, with citizens who wanted a powerful Catholic Church and a return to rule by the monarchy or an heir of Napoleon. The back of the book has sources notes and a bibliography.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The triumph of Mary McAuliffe's Dawn of the Belle Epoque is its authentic voice. With carefully chosen and colorful quotations, the book reveals unforeseen personality in many well-known historical figures, making for a fresh and revealing read.

Though occasionally jarring, the section breaks within chapters demonstrate McAuliffe's panoramic vision of this burgeoning city and inspired time. She flows unexpectedly, for example, from Monet's prowess as the "Raphael of water," to a discussion of waterborne disease and Paris' evolving system of wells and aqueducts, making thematic connections through style that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Truly an engaging and informative book, I look forward to seeing what else McAuliffe has in store.
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