In her second novel (after The Miniaturist, 2014), Burton links two talented young women of different generations with the fate of a magnificent lost painting. Set in an era—the mid-20th century—when art is a man’s province, The Muse is a tale of love, obsession, and rejection, as well as a compelling mystery.
1937, Malaga, Spain. Olive Schloss, 19, a gifted artist, paints in private, ignored by her English mother and her art dealer father, who says, “Women [artists] have no vision.” Olive doesn’t seem to care what he thinks; she just wants to paint. Her maid wants to honor her talent but, for Olive, reclusion is more comfortable than recognition. Then civil war reaches Malaga. Normal relationships end, people die, and a painting disappears.
1967, London. Odelle Bastien, a talented writer, left Trinidad to find a career; now 22, she sells shoes. She never stops writing, however, or searching for a better job until a prestigious art institute hires her as a typist. Surrounded by people with an interest in the arts, including a manager who mentors her and an attractive young man who brings in a painting for evaluation—and involves her in solving the mystery that shrouds it—Odelle becomes a different person.
Burton interweaves the two stories skillfully, yet one feels a dichotomy when reading. Although each honors women in her work, Odelle’s growing sophistication is more believable, hence more appealing than Olive’s innocence. Two unique personalities in radically different times defy comparison, as do their fates. Nevertheless, you will remember Burton’s characters long after you finish The Muse; and her prose is magical. Highly recommended.