Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

2017: 33
4.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2016

I really liked Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist (review), a historical fiction taking place in Amsterdam in the late 17th century. The Muse is Ms. Burton’s next novel and it, too, is historical fiction, weaving together two stories, one from 1936 and one from 1967, around a painting.

Odelle is a Trinidadian immigrant living in London in 1967. She’s spent the first few years there selling shoes but has finally found an office job in a gallery and met a man, Lawrie, at the wedding of her best friend, Cynth. Lawrie’s recently deceased mother left him a painting and he thinks it might be worth something. He brings it to the gallery where Odelle works and the gallery owner believes it’s a long lost painting by a Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. His assistant, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, takes Odelle under her wing, encouraging her writing talent. There’s something about the Surrealist painting that draws people in but is it really by Robles? Marjorie Quick seems to know more than she’s saying.

In the south of Spain in 1936 in the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War, we meet the Schloss family. Olive, the daughter, wants to be an artist but knows her art dealer father doesn’t believe women can be true artists. Her mother, Sarah, is staggering through life, with a bottle in one hand and a pill or two in the other, off in her own world most of the time. Two locals, Isaac and his sister Teresa, are employed by the Schloss family. Isaac is an artist as well as a firm believer in the upcoming revolution while Teresa has secrets of her own.

The story is told between the two timelines, in 1967 where Odelle is trying to discover the secrets behind the painting and in 1936, the real story of it. There’s going to be a connection between the past and “present” because that’s how these things work.  The fun is in the guessing. Halfway through, I thought I had it figured out and I did, partially.

The female characters in this book, as in her first book, are vivid and believable. We have two women, one an artist and one a writer, both of whom reluctant to show their talent to the world, both having someone, another woman each, that pushes them to try to encourage them to make something of their talent. The real story is in the past. Those in the present don’t make a lot of headway in peeling back the layers of the secret until the end. The Schloss family dynamic seems dysfunctional and into that, the mix of Isaac and his sister Teresa might be lighting a fuse that leads to an implosion. You know it won’t end well for them but it’s hard to put the book down until you find out what happens.

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