The Muse

The Muse

The MuseThe Muse by Jessie Burton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Actual rating: 3.5 stars

Is there anything that holds as much sway over humankind as art?

Whether it takes the form of music or a painting or a sculpture or the written word, nothing speaks to our souls like art. This gives artists a power over their fellow men and women. But no one doubts art so much as its creator, and so an artist’s audience holds within themselves the approval and praise that said artist craves, and thus artists rely on their audiences for the affirmation and reassurance needed to create their next work of art. However, if an artist isn’t careful they begin producing cheap imitations of the art that first garnered them attention, and so artists must be careful regarding how heavily they rely upon and value the opinions of others. They need something else to feed that need and fuel their creativity.

They need a muse.

“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was – and so I suffered according to how my work was received. The idea that anyone might be able to detach their personal value from their public output was revolutionary.”

In order to create art that moves and speaks and matters, an artist must find their muse. Not every muse is someone for whom the artist has romantic feelings. A muse might be a child, or an enemy, or themselves. Or perhaps instead of a human muse, an artist is inspired by nature or laughter or the idea of love. Inspiration is everywhere, and an artist might be inspired by thousands of different things within their lifetime. But a muse is something that said artist keeps returning to, something that has the power to imbue their work with life and a lushness that nothing else can quite inspire.

Odelle is a Trinidad native trying to make a way for herself in London during the 1960s. More than anything, Odelle longs to become a published writer, but doesn’t have the faith in herself or her work to take steps in that direction. One day, she is given a position at an art gallery as a typist, which is a big step up from her job selling shoes. On her first day at her new place of employment, Odelle meets Marjorie Quick, and her life will never be the same.

“…Is there ever such a thing as a whole story, or an artist’s triumph, a right way to look through the glass? It all depends on where the light falls.”

After Odelle’s first meeting with Quick, as she refers to herself, the storyline diverges, taking us to Spain in 1936, before the beginning of World War II. Here we meet the Schloss family. Olive is our primary character from this timeline. Olive is nineteen and ready to go live her own life, but her parents have issues. Sarah, her mother, is a British heiress and a depressive who seems always on the brink of ending her life. Harold, Olive’s father, is a Jewish art dealer in a time where his heritage was beginning to make life uncomfortable. Neither have any idea that their daughter has applied to and been accepted by the prestigious Slade School of Fine Arts. Honestly, they don’t even know that she still paints, much less that she’s talented. Her father believes strongly that only men can create true works of art with depth and merit, and so she hides her gift. Or at least, she does until she meets Teresa and Isaac Robles, siblings from a nearby village. Olive reveals her art to Teresa, who makes a decision one day that irreversibly changes all three of their lives.

There’s little else I can say about the plot of this book without giving something important away. While many of the twists were foreshadowed, there were a couple that came as a surprise to me. I confess that this is a story that would have benefited from a bit more characterization and a little less plodding prose. While the writing was lovely, it tended toward boggy. I liked what the novel had to say about art and the process of creation, and I appreciated that the book highlighted women as artists. But none of the relationships felt true, and the characters didn’t seem to like or accept themselves, which made them hard to enjoy. All of that boils down to this: I enjoyed the philosophical aspects of the story far more than the story itself. That being said, the book has merit, especially for people who appreciate the theory of art or are artists themselves.

“A piece of art only succeeds when it’s creator…possesses the belief that brings it into being.”

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