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Posts Tagged ‘Jessie Burton’

An acquaintance who reads widely recommended The Muse a few months ago and I remembered that Jessie Burton‘s first novel, The Miniaturist, had been an intriguing read, although I didn’t really connect with the characters. The Muse was even more intriguing and either wanted to be ash main character, Odelle Bastien, or be her friend.

Odelle is from Trinidad, and lives in London. When we meet her she has applied for a typist job at an art gallery. At her childhood friend Cynth’s wedding party, she meets Lawrie, a young Englishman with an incredible painting in the boot of his car. A romance and a mystery ensue.

At the art gallery, Odelle’s new boss is Marjorie Quick, who recognizes in Odelle a woman with creative ambitions. Although she’s clearly a well off, independent woman, Quick takes an interest in Odelle and her writing, and also warns her to be careful of Lawrie. Odelle — and we readers, in turn — isn’t sure what to make of Quick nor her interest. 

The book alternates between 1967 when these things are happening, and 1936, when the painting in Lawrie’s car came to be. In those sections, set in Spain, we meet the Schloss family: Harold, a Viennese art dealer, Sarah, his wealthy English wife, and Olive, his nineteen year old daughter. As soon as the Schloss’s arrive in Spain, brother and sister Teresa and Isaac Robles come to introduce themselves. Teresa becomes the Schloss’s housekeeper, and because she is about the same age, Olive’s friend. Isaac — well, who is is, what he does, and how he becomes involved with the Schloss family is part of the book’s mystery.

I don’t always love alternating storylines but I loved the way Burton built the tension in 1936 and 1967, respectively, leading the reader deeper into the story. The art, fashion, culture, and locations made me fervently hope someone at the BBC has already purchased rights to produce this — I would love to see it on Masterpiece. From the sunny pleasures of Spain before the Schloss’s and Robles’ fully grasp how imminently fascism menaces them, to the everyday racism of 60’s London, Burton brings man’s inhumanity to man to life, slowly, without overwhelming readers.

Also, and I add this because I listed to an interesting episode of The Readers about “impolite” reading, there are a little sex, politics, and violence, but they serve the purposes of the novel, rather than being extra to it. Burton gives readers clues about where things are heading, but they are thoughtful and neatly woven, not embroidered on top of the story. In fact, I’d call the whole book subtle — Burton reels us in with fascinating characters and a story that kept me on the couch a few evenings/afternoons. 

I just had a conversation Saturday with some work colleagues about literary novels that aren’t a bummer. I’m fine with reading about tough subjects if the underlying story offers some hope — a character who grows, a wrong that fate rights, redemption overtaking fear, hatred, or whatever other evil is present. One of the people at my table said that’s not how it works, books that aren’t a bummer are genre fiction (really longtime booksconscious readers know I don’t care much about these categories). I offered Exit West as an example of uplifting literary fiction, and I’d add The Muse as well.

In one of my first bookconscious posts back in August, 2007, I mentioned The Healing Power of Stories by Daniel Taylor, who suggests good stories shape kids’ growing sense of the world, and can impact emotional well being. I find myself avoiding the titillating and the toxic in my reading because there’s enough of that everywhere else. But it can be hard to tell before you start a book where it’s going to lead you, so The Muse was a pleasant surprise, a seriously good read about serious truths, challenging ideas, and painful history that still leaves readers hopeful that good people manage and good things happen in this world. And yes, I seem to be on a books about art kick. Leave me a comment if you know another good one. 

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One of my library colleagues recommended The Miniaturist, which she describes as a gothic historical novel, so I thought I’d give it a try. Gothic has several connotations, but in this case I think she’s referring to the undertone of mystery and romance throughout the story. Set in the late 1600’s in Amsterdam, the novel centers on Petronella Brandt, the eighteen year old bride of a middle aged merchant whose fortune and influence have earned him a comfortable living and respect. His household is unusual in that his unmarried sister Marin lives there, and that his servants are an orphan and a black man, who Johannes Brandt took in as children and employed.

Despite his unconventional and rather swashbuckling life — he has traveled far and wide, when most people of his time never left their neighborhoods — Brandt must live according to the strictures of the Burgomasters who run Amsterdam and the zealous fire-and-brimstone clergy. Public piety and private hypocrisy run rampant. Brandt is set in his ways and unprepared for a young wife (for a variety of reasons he was happy remaining unmarried), but he tries to make her happy, giving her an elaborate cabinet which contains an ornate miniature model of their house.

Nella is baffled by the gift but searches for a craftsman to furnish it. She commissions a few pieces from a miniaturist listed in the city’s directory of artisans. Before long, she is receiving pieces she hasn’t commissioned, which reveal details of the house and its occupants that Nella herself is only just learning. How does the miniaturist know? Is there prophecy in the tiny dolls and objects? Magic? Or mere spying? Who is giving away the Brandts’ secrets? “You thought you were a locked box inside a locked box, Nella tells herself. But the miniaturist sees you — she sees us.”

The story goes beyond melodrama though. Nella comes into her own as a woman, wife, mistress of a prosperous home, sister-in-law, friend, and Amsterdamer. Raised in the country by a family with not much left but its good name, Nella has to learn the ins and outs of city life as well as of her strange new home. I enjoyed watching her catch on to business, politics, relationships, life. Nella tries to understand, but some of what she discovers — through the miniaturist’s gifts and her own expanding awareness — is either shocking or hard to fathom or both.The other characters are also interesting, although not as fully drawn. The details of seventeenth century Amsterdam are fascinating.

An absorbing read, well worth getting lost in for a few evenings.

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