Like many people, I read Jessie Burton’s incredibly successful debut novel The Miniaturist for my book group – for two book groups actually. I hadn’t really expected to like it, as it wasn’t a period of history I was particularly interested in, but I absolutely loved it! I was hoping for great things from her second novel and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. It is as stunning a read as its beautiful cover promises. Elements of the story are reflected in the cover and you can read a bit more about its design by clicking here.
The Muse takes place over two time periods. It’s a turbulent time in 1930s Spain, with revolution on the horizon. Olive Schloss lives with her father Harold, who is an art dealer, and her mother Sarah. She is a talented artist but frustrated in her ambitions in a family where art is so important but where women aren’t considered likely to have artistic merit. Her mother commissions local artist Isaac Robles to paint a portrait of herself and Olive as a gift for Harold. His sister Teresa also works for the family as a maid. These two will have an important effect on the Schloss family in many ways.
In 1960s London, Odelle Bastien is also trying to find her place in a not entirely welcoming city. She is from Trinidad, struggling to find acceptance and a job reflecting her ability. After some years working alongside her friend Cynth in a shoeshop, she is offered a position at an art gallery under the watchful eye of the glamorous Marjorie Quick. When her friend Lawrie brings a painting to the gallery to be valued, it provokes an extraordinary response in Quick. What does she know about the painting and what is her connection to the artist?
As you might expect from a book concerned with art and painting, Jessie Burton has written a richly detailed novel. The Spanish physical and political landscapes are evocatively portrayed. The paintings are so vividly described I felt I could visualise the colours, the brushstrokes and the finished paintings. The London which Odelle experienced was also perfectly conveyed, from the heat of the summer to the prejudice she experienced as a black woman. Both storylines were strong with the end of each section leaving me wanting more, only to be immediately immersed in the other narrative. The author is skilled at gradually revealing the story in a way to surprise you and make you want to keep on reading as you try to understand what has been happening and what the connection between the two narratives is.
I can see this book being just as successful as The Miniaturist and rightly so. It is full of strong female characters who are striving to find acceptance as women and also to have their talents recognised. Only when the two storylines are expertly brought together at the end can you truly appreciate the full story – or should I say the full picture? A wonderful book about secrets, love and ambition.
My thanks to publishers Picador for allowing me to read a review copy via Netgalley. The Muse was published in hardback and as an ebook on 30 June 2016. You can order a copy here: The Muse
From the back of the book
A picture hides a thousand words . . .
On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.
The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .
Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an unforgettable novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception – a masterpiece from Jessie Burton, the million-copy bestselling author of The Miniaturist.