Posts Tagged Jessie Burton

book review: The Muse


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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book review: The Miniaturist


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Publisher: ECCO (August 2014). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 416 pages.

Lots of buzz surrounding this novel: it was a BEA Book Buzz selection; an Indie Next Pick; A LibraryReads selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. Rights sold to 30 countries. Great work marketing this one. A gorgeous cover. A romantic, cool setting – 17th century Amsterdam. An intriguing concept—a young wife, shuttled in from the countryside to marry her 20-years-older merchant husband—begins commissioning a miniaturist to fill a cabinet-sized replica of her home her husband gave her as a wedding present.

The miniaturist designs items that Nella never requested and seem to predict a doomed future. It started to be creepy in a good way. Nella received items that she barely knew existed in the expansive home she inhabited. Then she received dolls depicting everyone in the household including her sister-in-law, the help and most tellingly her husband’s lover. A few months before Nella happened in on Johannes in flagrante delicto with his younger lover and quickly realized why the 38-year-old man decided to marry her. She felt betrayed and stuck.

“Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off-center. If these items aren’t sent in error, then the cradle is a mockery of her unvisited marriage bed and what’s beginning to feel like an eternal virginity. What sort of person would dare such impertinence? The dogs, so particular; the chairs; so exact; the cradle, so suggestive—it’s as though the miniaturist has a perfect, private view.”

Unfortunately there’s not enough about the miniaturist despite the novel’s title. I’d expected it all to be about that. I expected details about how a miniaturist designs and works. About the art of creating miniatures. Author Jessie Burton visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw Petronella Oortman’s elaborate dolls’ house filled with Chinese porcelain, oak, Italian marble, glass, oil paintings and tapestries. That’s what I wanted to know about. That’s the world I wanted this novel to allow me to enter.

When 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to start her life as wife to renowned trader and merchant Johannes Brandt she doesn’t find the welcome or comforts she’d expected. She’s lonely and isolated. Her husband pays little attention to her. Sister-in-law Marin remains strict and secretive. Nella questions her decision to leave her family and small village yet had few options. How predictable and mundane for Marin to be wary of the young Nella and overly protective of her brother. Marin never married and she and her brother live together quite comfortably. Marin controls the household and now there’s this young woman setting foot in her territory.

“In Assendelft, there may have only been one town square, but at least the people sitting in it would listen to her. Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world.”

Of course there should be tension. Everything’s rather dark in this novel which is fine and has its place it just does not always work. Nella possesses little emotion for anything even her beloved parakeet she brought with her. There’s nothing to make the reader feel she truly cares for the bird. What drives Nella? Why is she doing what she’s doing? Is she really outraged by her husband’s behaviors or is she just a young woman who cannot yet understand? At that time she’s living in quite a religious society but she’s not a religious woman. Her sister-in-law’s the one who seems to be living her life based on religious doctrine. It’s infuriating because although Nella’s gained power in legal and societal terms by marrying a wealthy man respected in the community she allows her sister-in-law to continue to make the rules and force her to behave in ways that make Nella feel uncomfortable. Until many secrets reveal themselves and Nella and Marin must collaborate does Nella begin to gain her own voice and strength of character. By then it’s just too late to care.

The Miniaturist is a moralistic play on betrayal and survival and how one young woman conquers everything to come out intact on the other side. Her husband’s tried for sodomy. I skimmed many pages about his incarceration and trial. Johannes is a bore. There’s nothing striking about this character and that’s unfortunate. Her sister-in-law is pregnant with the black servant’s child and ends up committing suicide. While there’s some lovely writing and descriptions at parts, it lacks emotion, tension and intrigue. At the end I was left wanting more. The novel seems unfinished and it’s more than 400 pages.

RATING: ***/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

purchase at Amazon: The Miniaturist: A Novel

Jessie Burton will be at Harvard Book Store on Thursday, September 11 at 7pm.

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September Boston-Area Book Readings of Note


lovely dark deep

Joyce Carol Oates

Lovely, Dark, Deep: stories

Brookline Booksmith

At Coolidge Corner Theatre

Thursday, September 11 at 6pm


Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

Harvard Book Store

Thursday, September 11 at 7pm

bone clocks

David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks

Porter Square Books

Thursday, September 18 at 6:30pm

paying guests

Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Thursday, September 18 at 6pm



Rainbow Rowell


Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Friday, September 19 at 6pm

liars wife

Mary Gordon

The Liar’s Wife

Porter Square Books

Monday, Sept 22 at 7pm

unspeakable things

Laurie Penny

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

Harvard Book Store

Friday, September 26 at 7pm

thirteen days

Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September

Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre

Monday, September 29 at 6pm

life drawing

Robin Black

Life Drawing

Harvard Book Store

Tuesday, September 30 at 7pm

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