I love this cover. I love it so much that I kept it on my shelf for a year and a half. OK, I’m joking, obviously. I have a lot of historical fiction on my bookshelves, but I never seem to be in the mood for one. But, when I finally pick one up (usually out of guilt of it sitting there so long), I almost always enjoy it.
As you may know, Jessie Burton also wrote The Miniaturist, which I also enjoyed and reviewed a while back. Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has lovable characters, tackles some tough social/societal issues, and has an enchanting and mysterious plot. In my opinion, The Miniaturist did not quite live up to its name since there was very little about the character who made the magical miniatures. The Muse does a better job of providing a clear narrative and the characters are crafted much more carefully.
The Muse focuses on two timelines. In 1967, we follow Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian woman who has come to London to follow her dreams of being a writer. She finds a job as a typist at an art gallery, but living alone in London is often difficult for her as a single, working woman of color. Odelle meets her boss, Marjorie Quick, who is a woman with a mysterious past. In 1936, the Schloss family has moved to rural Spain for a fresh start. Olive Schloss is a headstrong young woman with an extraordinary painting ability. Olive’s family gets wrapped up in the Spanish Revolution when they employ the revolutionary siblings, Teresa and Isaac. Although many of these characters and details appear unrelated to each other, the plot intertwines nearly everything in a believable way.
If you have read both of Burton’s novels, you’ll see that she likes to leave gaps in her narratives. So, if you like to have everything tied up neatly at the end of the novel, beware! The Miniaturist left some large gaps in the plot and with characterization, which left me feeling unsatisfied as a reader. The Muse still leaves some minor details out, but it is much less ambiguous overall. The characters in The Muse were also a bit more fleshed out. Their pasts, ambitions, and feelings went beyond the page and the main plot line. There were a few events that were a little bit of stretch of reality (convenient meetings/connections between characters, relationships that did not progress realistically), but as I said earlier, most things came together in a way that made sense and felt natural. I loved a lot of what The Muse had to offer, and I particularly liked Odelle as a character. She was a strong female character, and her inner thoughts and feelings about her writing mirrored my own.
The Muse has a lot of strengths, and I wholeheartedly believe that Burton improved as a writer from her first novel to this one. However, if I had to give one critique about the novel, I would have to say that at times it felt like it was trying to do too much. It talked about colonialism, racism, sexism, historical events, the art world, writing, creating art in general, guilt, trauma, and the characters’ love lives to name a few off the top of my head. These are great subjects to take on, but few are explored in depth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is realistic to some extent as these topics do often come up in the course of everyday life. We cannot always process every little part of these subjects as we go about our day, so should we expect a novel to untangle all of these parts of life? Perhaps not. Still, it is something to keep in mind if you plan on reading The Muse. You may be like me and feel like it spread itself a bit thin in trying to cover so many issues and topics. Despite this, I would still give this novel a very high recommendation. Even if you did not like The Miniaturist, The Muse is worth giving a chance.