Author: Jessie Burton
Read: July, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary from Goodreads (link here):
From the internationally bestselling author of The Miniaturist comes a captivating and brilliantly realised story of two young women—a Caribbean immigrant in 1960s London, and a bohemian woman in 1930s Spain—and the powerful mystery that ties them together.
England, 1967. Odelle Bastien is a Caribbean émigré trying to make her way in London. When she starts working at the prestigious Skelton Art Gallery, she discovers a painting rumoured to be the work of Isaac Robles, a young artist of immense talent and vision whose mysterious death has confounded the art world for decades. The excitement over the painting is matched by the intrigue around the conflicting stories of its discovery. Drawn into a complex web of secrets and deceptions, Odelle does not know what to believe or who she can trust, including her mesmerising colleague, Marjorie Quick.
Spain, 1937. Olive Schloss, the daughter of a Viennese Jewish art dealer and English heiress, follows her parents to Arazuelo, a poor, restless village on the southern coast. She grows close to Teresa, a young housekeeper, and her half-brother Isaac Robles, an idealistic and ambitious painter newly returned from the Barcelona salons. A dilettante buoyed by the revolutionary fervour that will soon erupt into civil war, Isaac dreams of being a painter as famous as his countryman, Picasso.
Raised in poverty, these illegitimate children of the local landowner revel in exploiting this wealthy Anglo-Austrian family. Insinuating themselves into the Schloss’s lives, Teresa and Isaac help Olive conceal her artistic talents with devastating consequences that will echo into the decades to come.
Rendered in exquisite detail, The Muse is a passionate and enthralling tale of desire, ambition, and the ways in which the tides of history inevitably shape and define our lives.
(HERE BE SPOILERS!)
I loved this book. For me, it was better than The Miniaturist.
Personally, I adore books that try and show the interlocking connections that exist between time periods, places and people and The Muse captures this brilliantly – half the story follows Odelle in 1960s London and the other half follows Olive in 1930s Spain. Out of the two, I found Odelle far more likeable – Olive was at times painfully naive and somewhat oblivious to others, although considering the novel does explore the idea of finding one’s independence and sense of purpose, Olive’s age (19) and rather sheltered upbringing, it is understandable. However Odelle was endlessly enjoyable to read about – an aspiring writing who suffers from a lot of self doubt, was stubborn and stuck to her values, had believable conflicts with other characters from which she learned and evolved as a person. Also, I really admired her determination – she moved from her family home in Trinidad to London to pursue her dream of being a writer, facing and overcoming a lot of ingrained racism as well as her own worries about not being good enough.
The two women are connected by a painting – Rufina and the Lion. Olive, an artist, painted the piece along with several others during her time in rural Spain in the lead up the Spanish Civil War. Olive’s father is a notable art dealer, but he has never taken his daughter’s work seriously –
Her father always said that of course women could pick up a paintbrush and paint, but the fact was, they didn’t make good artists. Olive had never quite worked out what the difference was.
(Side-note: Another reason I admire Burton’s writing is because it’s often got a feminist slant – her characters are usually working against some kind of confining gender discrimination, and in Odelle’s case it’s racial as well.)
Olive believes herself to be creating her best work during her time in Spain as a direct result of meeting Isaac Robles – Isaac and his sister Teresa are locals who arrive at the Schloss household seeking work for Teresa as a maid/housekeeper. Olive is quickly infatuated with Isaac; he becomes her muse. Olive becomes terrified of losing this creative ability she has found, desperately clutching at Isaac’s affection and the cover identity he provides for her work after Teresa, wanting Olive to receive more recognition for her paintings, switches one of Olive’s works with a portrait of Isaac’s. Olive’s father falls in love with the piece, setting about to sell it immediately, oblivious to the fact it was painted by his daughter.
Fast forward to London, 1960s. Odelle is given a job at an art gallery by the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, who tries to encourage Odelle’s writing talent, going so far as to help her publish her first story. Odelle goes on to meet Lawrie at her friend’s wedding party, and the pair share a moment in the kitchen, discussing the death of Lawrie’s mother and Odelle’s father, before going their separate ways. Lawrie later finds Odelle at her work, bringing with him a painting which draws a rather strange reaction from Quick and excitement from the gallery’s owner – it’s an Isaac Robles, a piece called Rufina and the Lion.
As both stories progress and interconnect, culminating in tragedy and hope, it becomes apparent that Marjorie Quick was in fact Teresa. I don’t know at what point in the story Burton intended for this to become known to the reader – I figured it out quite quickly, so it wasn’t a major revelation. I don’t know if it was supposed to be one, but I also don’t think that it matters. The very narrative structure of novel, split between two periods, grants the reader a sense of knowledge, an awareness, that the characters themselves could never possess. So it doesn’t matter, I feel, because the reader finding out isn’t the point – it’s Odelle finding out, it’s the validation of another person knowing the truth about the Isaac Robles painting, that matters. At least, that was my interpretation.
The Muse is not only about growing up, but also about art and the creative process. A lot of emphasis is placed on the freedom Olive gains from being able to paint anonymously – people do not attribute her work to her, but Isaac, and this gives her space to do what she likes. Quick advises Odelle, who is going through a period of writer’s block, to just write because her work would be separate from herself. It’s a strange but also not strange idea – once an idea leaves the confines of a person’s mind and is shared in any creative medium, the interpretation of that idea is up to its audience. The audience’s interpretation is separate from the intention of the artist. The artist themself is not their art, nor is their art them.
The idea that anyone might be able to detach their personal value from their public output was revolutionary. I didn’t know if it was possible, even desirable.
I feel that Burton’s own experiences must have influenced her here – The Miniaturist was a wildly popular debut; I think it’s sold over a million copies (it has, I just check The Muse’s book jacket – which is incredibly pretty by the way). How daunting to have to write a another book in the face of that success and inevitable expectation. That’s why I feel the whole idea of separating the art from the artist probably captured Burton’s interest – the idea of the creative freedom that would allow, that Olive experiences when Isaac becomes the face of her work, was probably something Burton would appreciate with her own writing.
Another thing I enjoyed about this book was how Burton explored the finite nature of some relationships – the person who you fall in love with in your late teens/early twenties isn’t necessarily the person you’re going to be with forever, and that’s totally normal and okay. Odelle describes how her relationship with Lawrie changes and fades away after he uses his money from Rufina’s sale to travel to America:
In the end, Lawrie didn’t come back.
[…] I did not miss Lawrie as much as I might have missed my work. He had told me to keep writing, so I did. I would have preferred not to have to choose between writing and loving; because for me, they were often the same thing.
[…] Perhaps I didn’t have to choose. Perhaps that was a dichotomy I set up myself. Regardless; the phone calls became more sporadic, and then they stopped.
Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely. Burton is a talented story teller and her historical settings are simply gorgeous – although I must say, 1960s London and 1930s Spain weren’t quite as beautiful as her depiction of 1600s Amsterdam. The Muse is a fantastic book – it made me consider creativity and the nature of art differently, as well giving brief glimmers of insight into two very interesting time periods. What are you waiting for? Go read it!
If you like this try:
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns
What about you guys? Any other Jessie Burton fans? Please share your thoughts!