Summary: 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 . . .
When I finished reading Burton’s first book over a year ago—The Miniaturist—I could not help but feel rather underwhelmed by all the praise that she received. Yes the writing was good and it was a very fast read, but I had a major sense of déjà vu. I believed that it was due to the sense of déjà vu that prevented me from fully enjoying Burton’s work, so I told myself that I should give Burton another chance when she releases a new book, particularly when the book was plastered everywhere and there were high praises coming from multiple reviews. Plus look at the beautiful cover! How could I resist?
Alas, I still walked away perplexed by all the accolades. It was not a bad book by any means, but I expected more—much more—than what was presented in The Muse.
Unlike The Miniaturist, The Muse (I just realized that Burton really liked using a single word preceded by ‘the’ titles; not sure if it is her choice or her publishers) had to juggle between multiple timelines and two sets of characters. It followed Odelle, an aspiring writer who was struggling living in London during the 60s due to her skin colour amongst other problems; and Olive, a privileged and very talented artist on a “getaway” vacation with her parents during the Spanish Civil War. I did appreciate Burton’s talent for making me care about both characters and timelines, which was a rarity for me because I would generally find one of the timelines to be a throwaway one to allow the other one to be more mysterious and exciting.
Burton tried giving both protagonists multiple characteristics, and I would say that she succeeded more with Odelle. She was the more refreshing protagonist of the two, as she was keenly aware the differences between her imagination and the reality of London yet she was willing to continue with her life. It also helped that Odelle had an inspiring yet enigmatic mentor in Majorie Quick who always dispensed (brutally) honest advice and observations to Odelle. Olive was the more interesting character on paper as a rich talented artist with an English and Jewish heritage during the eve of World War II, but she somehow seemed more of a caricature of all her characteristics than a real person. She would manically paint and create beautiful pieces in some scenes, and in others she would peevishly talk at her mother and her friend, and finally she would pretend that everything was alright in the midst of some very troubling time.
Another thing that I felt was sorely lacking was the historical details that could have been embedded in both storylines. I think the main (historical) takeaway from the 1960s London storyline was that society was still very racist, preferred segregation, and could not understand how other individuals were deserving of being treated as humans with capabilities. Honestly if Burton did not mention that the setting was 1960s I could hardly remember it and I failed to see why setting the story in the 60s as opposed to any other time period was crucial to the story’s success. (Other than Burton deciding that she wanted her plot to unfold in that time period) But what was most disappointing was how she handled the Spanish Civil War. I sadly knew nothing about the Spanish Civil War and was looking forward for a solid yet entertaining introduction to how it affected the lives of so many. However, it was a very basic backdrop indeed. Certain ideas were teased and briefly mentioned, such as the startling difference between various socioeconomic classes and how the people at the higher socioeconomic status would only exploit the people in the lower classes, as well as peasants wanting better rights through educating other peasants and banding together, but they never really came together beyond outright stating (and forcing the reader to believe) that these various squabbles would somehow escalate to a war. I apologize at the muddled of what the Spanish Civil War should be like, but that was honestly the impression that I got from the book. I understand that Olive was a foreigner that was living in a rented finca (a large vacation home) with her parents and may not have completely had a grasp on the political situation in Spain, but it did not mean that Burton could not have included the historical elements to show the impact on not only Olive’s life, but others around her. There were sporadic scenes where Issac would talk about some beating or killing that occurred in the village, but those scenes did not connect with the plot itself and only served as a background to remind the reader that it was set in 1930s Spain and that Issac supported the revolution (although for what, I again must apologize, that I have no idea—it was really that poorly explained in my opinion).
Honestly, the best character in my opinion from Olive’s timeline was Teresa, Olive’s/Olive’s family maid that they engaged while in Spain. She was very enigmatic, yet was eventually torn by the friendship that Olive displayed and freely gave versus Teresa’s less-then-entirely-appropriate actions and her brother’s demons. I would have been more excited to follow her character than Olive’s, although she was an important supporting character in the timeline.
The stories themselves were entertaining, but there were no amazing surprises. What you believe would be the ending for the book was probably the ending for the book—not to say that it was a bad thing since it meant that foreshadowing was done properly. I just wished for a greater element of surprise or more twists throughout the narrative. The only two (minor) surprises that I did not see were how the romances went (however the romance was hardly a great portion of the book) and the connection between the Lawrie’s mother and the painting.
What I did really enjoy was how Burton painted the Spanish countryside (or wherever Olive was staying) as a setting along with the artwork that was inspired by the landscape. It was lush, exotic, and slightly dangerous with multiple layers. Through her descriptions I could certainly understand why one would be inclined to produce some of their finest works as well as visualize the paintings that have captured the attention of everyone in this book.
While I did enjoy the book (I read it in three sittings and probably could have finished in two if I wasn’t tired), it was definitely not a standout book for me. I would recommend it to those who appreciate artwork, love exotic settings or don’t mind having less historical details in a dual timeline story.