book review: The Muse

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The Muse by Jessie Burton. Ecco| July 26, 2016| 416 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 9780062409928

RATING: ****/5*

Sometime I might want to read (or perhaps write) a novel from one viewpoint in one time period. Historical fiction does draw me in particularly with vivid descriptions, an established sense of place and depth of character. The Muse intrigued me by its lovely black cover, the title and the settings: 1960s London and 1930s Spain. A muse generally refers to someone who influences one’s art. Author Jessie Burton created two independent-spirited and determined women despite their circumstances and the time periods. But who’s kidding anyone? Women still have it tough in 2016. In this novel I didn’t think a muse existed. Although without giving anything away there might be an unexpected muse. Flip the expectations for a muse. This is Burton’s second art-focused historical fiction novel. The Minaturist came out in 2014. I wanted to adore it but just couldn’t. It was quite well-written but a bit too melodramatic. The Muse fares much better mainly because the characters pursue their own artistic goals.

“Ever since I could pick up a pen, other people’s pleasure was how I’d garnered attention and defined success. When I began receiving public acknowledgement for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was now outward-looking, a self-conscious performance.”

An exclusive London art gallery hires Odelle Bastien, a well-educated immigrant from Trinidadian, as a secretary. Her interesting manager Marjorie Quick quite likes the young woman and they commence a friendship of sorts. Odelle aspires to be a published writer. At a wedding she meets the dashing, sophisticated Lawrie Scott who brings a painting to the gallery for appraisal. The painting causes quite a stir. The narrative turns to 1930s Spain where Olive Schloss lives with her family in the small town of Arazuelo. Her father, a Jewish art dealer, fled Vienna in advance of Nazi persecution. A talented painter, Olive Schloss earned acceptance to the Slade School of Art but her father doesn’t think highly of female painters. Olive never tells her father. Burton describes how Olive feels after finishing a painting: “She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked. It was a stubborn ideal; a paradise on earth, and the irony was it had come from a place to which her parents had dragged her.” Half siblings Teresa and Isaac Robles become ensconced in the Schloss family. Isaac Robles paints as well as carries out revolutionary missions in Spain. For Olive who becomes involved with both there’s deceit, betrayal and secrets galore. Burton connects the two women through this one mysterious painting and its back-story.

As often happens I preferred one time period and character arc (the 1960s story-line) to the other. The chapters involving Odelle definitely captivated me the most. She’s from Trinidad, a country under British rule during the 1940s when she was a child. She’s dating a white guy. Burton’s writing in Odelle’s voice –the Trinidad speaking-style with her friend as well as focusing on how others react to Odelle, how the young woman feels and how she finds her place enhances this novel. Burton writes: “I hadn’t scrapped with the boys to gain a first-class English Literature degree from the University of the West Indies for nothing.” I’d have preferred an entire novel about Odelle. I understand the need for this intrigue or a desire to examine several time periods but Olive’s story-line became a bit trite and dull. Odelle stays true to herself at all times while Olive falls for Isaac and allows her art to become influenced and overshadowed by him. A definitely strong summer read, pack this one on your next long weekend getaway.

–review by Amy Steele

 

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco. </em>

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