I continued my theme of reading ‘art thrillers’* with The Muse by Jessie Burton.
The story begins in 1967, in London, where Odelle Bastien, a budding writer from Trinidad, gets a job as a typist at a well-known art gallery. Her boss, the elegant Marjorie Quick, takes a special interest in Odelle and her writing. Meanwhile, Odelle meets Lawrie Scott, a young man who has inherited a mysterious painting – the masterpiece, Quick believes, of a Spanish artist called Isaac Robles.
The history of the painting takes the story to a village in southern Spain in 1936, where Olive Schloss is living with her art dealer father and her glamorous but troubled mother. Although Olive is a painter of considerable talent, her father dismisses women as artists.
“Was the difference between being a workaday painter and being an artist simply other people believing in you, or spending twice as much money on your work? As far as Olive saw it, this connection of masculinity with creativity had been conjured from the air and been enforced, legitimised and monetised by enough people for whom such a state of affairs was convenient – men like her father.”
Olive meets the alluring Isaac Robles, a revolutionary, and his sister Teresa, who quickly become part of the Schloss household, with far-reaching consequences.
There is much to recommend The Muse and it’s certainly a solid follow-up to Burton’s debut, The Miniaturist. The high-points come through Burton’s magnificent descriptions of Olive’s painting, and sixties London (right down to the gallery’s brash receptionist, Pamela, with her mini-skirts, beehive and Mick-Jagger-lust, and the gallery owner, Edmund Reede) –
“The name ‘Edmund Reede’ for me conjured up a quintessential, intimidating Englishness, Savile Rowers in Whitehall clubs; eat the steak, hunt the fox. Three piece suit, pomaded hair, great-uncle Henry’s golden watch… We studied men like him at school – protected gentlemen, rich gentlemen, white gentlemen, who picked up pens and wrote the world for the rest of us to read.”
The parallel stories of Odelle and Olive craving artistic recognition are obviously linked without being heavy-handed. Equally good is the portrayal of both Odelle and Olive’s friendships with other women – to Quick and Teresa respectively – and how these friendships test loyalty, trust and ultimately eclipse their relationships with men.
There are plenty of twists and cliffhangers to keep you reading and, as with The Miniaturist, Burton’s writing is enchanting –
“He had left a trail of cologne, a sharp, umbery echo of dark leather chairs and darker corners.”
3.5/5 I wasn’t as emotionally invested in this story as I was with The Miniaturist but nonetheless, a terrific read.
Marjorie is a gin drinker (at all times of the day and night). Hooray for Marjorie. Pair this book with a Last Word cocktail, which I think makes a nice match with the opening line from The Muse – “Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.”