The Muse by Jessie Burton
Opening sentence: “Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.”
Having very much enjoyed Jessie Burton’s previous book, The Miniaturist, I was looking forward to starting The Muse and can actually say that I preferred it. Where her first book left me with many questions, I felt The Muse had a concise story arc and more satisfying conclusion.
With a dual timeline plot, we are first introduced to narrator Odelle Bastien, who moves to London from Trinidad in 1962 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer and poet. We are then taken to Olive Schloss’ tale, set 30 years earlier in 1936, Spain, just as the simmering tensions of the Spanish Civil War are taking hold.
I enjoyed the contrasting moods of the two stories as they shared chapters throughout, although I do have to admit a fondness for Odelle, she is such a likeable character that I would always look forward to being in her company. When Odelle starts a new job as a receptionist in the Skelton art gallery, employed by the well-spoken, straight-talking Marjorie Quick, who takes her under her wing, Odelle encourages her love interest Lawrie Scott to bring a painting he wants to sell to the gallery – the evocative Rufina and the Lion and this is when things get interesting.
Back in 1936, Olive – an aspiring and talented artist – moves with her glamorous but bored mother, Sarah, and her art dealer father, Harold, to a relatively isolated villa in Malaga. Siblings Isaac and Teresa Robles introduce themselves to the family – Teresa is employed as the maid and Isaac, also an artist, is commissioned by Sarah to paint herself and Olive. Both siblings spend a lot of time with the Schloss women and become intimately entwined in their lives.
Burton’s descriptions of Olive’s paintings and Odelle’s poems are truly beautiful, both women have artistic talents and strong minds – I found the feminist theme of this novel, along with the intriguing plot, really appealing.
The two stories are linked in more ways than is first evident and although well written, I did find sections slow moving, with the plot taking a long time to reveal itself. However, even though I had time to think about the likely way it would develop, I can’t say I guessed correctly and that made the powerful, poetic ending even better.