by Jessie Burton
I cannot remember for the life of me how I stumbled upon reading The Muse. Likely the cover had something to do with it . . . I can’t help myself (as we all know). I requested it from my library, but it took a while to come in, so I totally forgot why I wanted it. That being said, I dove into it and I really enjoyed it. Burton is a gifted storyteller who vividly describes places, characters, and events. It was if I was truly there experiencing things with Olive and Odelle. This book discussed events I’d never heard of (like the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s), and wove a complex story that kept me riveted until the very last page. I’m definitely intrigued to read Burton’s other book, The Miniaurist.
The Muse weaves a story of love and loss from two different time periods and two different places: Spain 1936 and England 1967. The book alternates between the two periods before tying everything together. Olive Schloss moves to southern Spain with her parents as a young woman. She is frustrated with her life and family because she wants nothing more than to paint and go to art school (she even got accepted), but she is holding back because her father is an art dealer and her whole life she has heard him say that women simply can not be artists . . .it can’t even be considered. She is afraid to admit that she is an artist and frustrated that she is so limited. When they first arrive at their new home, they are greeted by Isaac and Teresa Robles, siblings come to offer their services to keep house, help out, etc. It isn’t long before they learn that Isaac paints and Sarah (Olive’s mother) commissions a painting of her and Olive for her husband. Isaac agrees, but unbeknownst to him, Olive has found inspiration to paint like never before because she has fallen in love with him. Fast forward to 1967, where we meet Odelle, a young black woman who works at a prestigious London art gallery. She is an aspiring writer who keeps having writer’s block. One day she meets a young man, Lawrie, and they fall for each other. Lawrie has just lost his mother and the only she left him is a painting. He decides to see if Odelle’s art gallery can find him answers and maybe get him a good price for it, if it has any value. Spoilers: back in the 30’s, Teresa decides to take matters into her own hands and when Isaac’s painting is ready to be presented, she swaps it with Olive’s painting. Olive and Isaac are stunned, but keep quiet, Olive later begging Isaac to go along with the ruse, because of course her father was in love with the painting and wants to find a buyer (and likely wouldn’t feel that way if he knew it was it daughter (a woman) who painted it. Isaac reluctantly agrees and sure enough a buyer is found and more work is desired. Isaac wants out, but Olive convinces him to go along with it for one more painting, but she lies to him and sneaks a third painting with the second to be shipped to the German buyer. While all of this is transpiring, Spain is heating up for Civil War and Isaac is caught on the wrong side. He is being hunted and soon disappears. Olive is distraught. She loves him, but he does not love her back and just leaves her. One day, Teresa is caught, and humiliated in order to tell where her brother is, but she remains silent. Olive catches on an convinces Teresa to tell her the truth. When she reluctantly agrees (he has not actually left, but is hiding in the woods), Olive runs to him, only to find him with her mother and see that her mother is pregnant. She is furious and confused as to why her mother is better and in her anger fires a gun to get their attention before kicking her mother out so she can speak to Isaac alone. The gun shot alerts the enemy, who shoots Isaac and then Olive (whom they mistook for Teresa). The next day, Olive is found, buried, and later the family leaves with Teresa for England. Olive’s parents separate, Harold to who knows where and Sarah to raise her son, Lawrie, alone, before dying and leaving him one last painting. Teresa goes her own way, renaming herself Marjorie Quick and finding work at a prestigious art gallery in London, where she hires a young woman named Odelle and soon takes her under her wing, encouraging her writing and helping her to succeed in life (in part by getting her published). By the time she hires Odelle, Quick has learned that she has cancer and there is nothing she can do to stop the disease. She knows of Odelle’s connection to Lawrie, and therefore the supposed Isaac Robles painting, so she slowly brings Odelle into her life, leaving her little clues to the truth. But in honor of Olive’s wish to remain anonymous, she doesn’t tell Odelle the full story until after she dies: leaving Odelle with the entire story and bequeathing her her house. In the end, Lawrie sells the painting and moves to America, while Odelle finally gets her answers and lives in Quick’s house. It was a fitting ending and an interesting, haunting story.
Summing it up: I definitely recommend The Muse. It was beautifully written and a brilliant story from cover to cover.
All the best, Abbey