The Muse by Jessie Burton
Jessie Burton’s “The Muse”, published last year, follows two intersecting story lines, one taking place in 1936, the other in 1967. Both involve the provenance of a painting titled “Women in a Wheatfield”. The later story unfolds in England, where the main character, a well-educated black woman named Odelle, is hired by a prominent art gallery and befriends the enigmatic manager, becomes amorous with a handsome white man, heir to a famous painting, and becomes involved with its mysterious history. Racial tensions of the times are evident, but it was interesting how the author allowed her character to slip into black parlance at certain times, though usually well-spoken in the snobbish world of high art.
The earlier story takes place in Spain during civil uprising in advance of World War II. A well-to-do English family is leasing a Spanish finca, which comes with the services of a local brother and sister. Relationships develop, tensions abound— familial and sensual. Harold, the husband, is a well-reputed art dealer and discovers the creative talent of his worker, but things are not what they appear to be. Respected women painters in those times are lacking, the author notes. But what starts out as a harmless prank results in a mistaken identity of the painter of “Women in the Wheatfield" that persists through time.
Some books just tell a story, but Jessie Burton knows how to craft words. Her descriptions are a joy to savor. Her characters have personality, and their thoughts are intriguing. Odell contemplates a concept introduced by her boss at the museum, “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. I didn’t know if it was possible, even desirable. Surely it would affect the quality of the work?” And another character, talking about what makes one painter stand out from the rest says, “Novelty makes the difference. You can be a brilliant draughtsman, but that means nothing if you’re not seeing the world differently.”
A well-written story about art, the facades we create to perpetuate an untruth, with some historical fact thrown in, “The Muse” was a book I can recommend, and makes me want to try the author’s bestseller, “The Miniaturist” next!