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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 the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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My book group chose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith for November. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, which is one of the lovely things about being in a book group, hearing about authors and books new to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the gist is that it’s the story of a fictional 17th century Dutch painter, Sara de Vos, and of a 20th century Manhattan patent attorney, Martin de Groot, whose family has owned what is thought to be the only landscape painting de Vos painted, and of Ellie Shipley, a young Australian woman writing her dissertation on 17th century Dutch women painters and making money on the side as an art restorer. The book moves around from de Vos’s time to the 1950’s when Ellie and Marty meet in New York to the late 20th century in Australia, where Ellie has returned when Marty reappears in her life forty years after the events that brought them together.

At the heart of the story is the painting Marty’s family owns, “At the Edge of the Wood,” which depicts a young barefoot girl in a ragged dress watching people skate on a frozen river. It goes missing during a benefit dinner at Marty’s penthouse, replaced by a fake so realistic it takes months for him to notice the switch. The mystery leads him to Ellie. And in between, Smith takes readers to de Vos’s Holland, a place grieving from plague deaths, where the art world is controlled by guilds and the whims of the marketplace (tulip paintings come into and go out of fashion with the great speculation in bulbs, for example).

Each of the periods Smith describes beautifully, with details that take the readers right into the scene. The stink of Ellie’s apartment, caused by, among other things, a perpetually moldy ceiling and the rabbit pelts she boils down for her restoration work, is one example. The tension of an art auction. The way a Citroën engine sounds and the color of Marty’s driving gloves in the sunlight.  The slice of skates on a frozen river in Holland. The bustle of Sydney’s sidewalks at night. A scene where Ellie is reflecting on her life and watching men trying to maneuver a refrigerator onto a small boat to ill effect. And detailed depictions of artists at work.

Even ordinary scenes between characters are richly imagined, like this, when Ellie and Marty are together in Australia towards the end of the book: “He hasn’t been neutered by time exactly– there’s still a tiny high pressure weather system that hovers between them– but his potency moves in and out, at the edges of reception, muffled then surging then gone.” Relations between characters throughout the book are described beautifully, whether between friends, co-workers, or couples.

This is a lovely, intriguing novel and if you like art, an incredibly interesting look at what art means to the people who create and collect it. A great book for escaping from the world with. And one I look forward to discussing with my book group!

 

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