Written by Mary Novik
Review by Terri Baker

In her second novel, Mary Novik explores the life of a woman betrayed by a real historical poet. Muse tells the story of the unnamed woman who bore the children of the canonical 14th-century poet Petrarch, the inspiration for a Renaissance in English literature. His poetry became famous for worshipping an unattainable beauty, yet Solange Le Blanc, born into poverty in Avignon when the Papacy was based there (1309-1377), is the opposite of Petrarch’s idealized lady.

After she flees from the nunnery where she grew up and became a scribe, Solange meets the as yet unknown Petrarch, who convinces her to produce fair copies of his work. The two become passionate lovers until Petrarch encounters his unattainable beauty Laura de Sade and finds a new inspiration for his poetry. Despite the success of the poetry inspired by his idealistic love, Petrarch continues to correspond with his flesh-and-blood lover, Solange.

In Novik’s imagining of this medieval love story, Solange is more than a muse to Petrarch; she is his critic, his lover, and a devotee of his work. Told in Solange’s first-person point of view, Muse recreates 14th-century Avignon: its corruption and excesses, its beauty and its art. Throughout, Novik’s feminist sensibility dominates, reclaiming Solange’s lost female history through the familiar physical, emotional, and mental cycles that many women across history share. From Solange’s birth to her apprenticeship as a scribe, we empathize with her, especially when tragedy thrusts her from a sequestered, female-centred home to negotiate the world of men.