A picture hides a thousand words . . . On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery. The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .
I read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton a couple of years ago and was taken aback by how fantastic it was. The Muse left me feeling the same way. I only bought this book because I liked her other book so much and figured this one was worth a go even though the synopsis wasn’t something I found really interesting. I’m so glad I read it because it solidified Burton as an author whose work I’ll read regardless of the type of story. I think her writing and storytelling are great and worth giving any of her books a chance.
The writing was fantastic. The story is told in two different timelines and I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book with more than one POV where the prose itself had such distinct voices. The story opens with Odelle’s first person POV in London in 1967. The other timeline is in Spain in 1936 and is third person with the focus jumping around from Olive, Teresa, and Isaac and occasionally to Olive’s parents. In the very beginning, I wasn’t loving the writing style—there was just something off about Odelle’s POV that didn’t click with me. I didn’t love how it was being told like Odelle from the future was telling it to us and would occasionally break into the story with a comment from the future (although this made sense in the end). This slight dislike faded quickly and the more I read, the more I became enraptured with the story. I settled into Olive’s parts very quickly and found that I enjoyed the third person writing more. This book is full of evocative descriptions that effortlessly painted scenes in my mind and made it very easy to really sink into it and understand all of the characters. Also, the timelines and stories were woven together flawlessly.
The characters were so real with their gray morals and secrets and justifications for their actions they didn’t always realize were wrong. Sometimes I didn’t even realize how wrong something was and just saw it for the desperation so wrapped up in their feelings instead of how people were using each other. It was great. The characters and relationships were complex in ways we don’t even fully understand until the end. I liked everyone even as they did things I didn’t agree with. They were just so well written and understandable. The only one I really liked without having some moments where I questioned if I liked them was Odelle. I also loved the stark contrasts between our narrators. Odelle is a Trinidadian woman living in London in the 60s after moving there to become a writer and finding it to be nothing like she’d imagined. Olive, the rich daughter of an art dealer who doesn’t believe in her, has just moved to rural Spain with her parents and is surprised to have found real happiness and a sort of success there—dependent on the man, Isaac, who lives on the property, though. I loved watching her utter desperation and his distance when she put him into situations he wasn’t okay with. It was a mess and I couldn’t get enough. I also really liked Teresa, Isaac’s sister, who was a surprisingly deep, impactful character.
The story focuses on a painting and the lives of the people around when it was first painted and how it impacted other lives decades later. It had a bit of a slow start. I wasn’t truly interested and locked in until it switched to the first part of Olive’s story. My slight apathy didn’t last very long and once I saw the pieces of the separate stories starting to connect, I was hooked. I can’t tell you how many times the events of this novel had me floored. I absolutely loved it. I was sure Isaac was going to be a certain type of person and that he’d do something the way I’d figured, but he didn’t and it completely changed how I thought of him and Olive. The dual timelines allowed me to come up with my own guesses as to how they were connected but even the one time I was right, I was shocked at how it played out. There was an interesting undercurrent of political unrest in Spain in Olive’s story that at first seemed like just a subplot and part of Isaac’s characterization, but it ended up providing quite a climax that came out of nowhere. There were plenty of surprises in Odelle’s time, too, because that’s where we got to see how much of the story ends.
Apart from the slower start and not loving Odelle’s POV early on, I have no complaints about this novel. I could talk endlessly about how I wish certain things had been different but only for the sake of the characters. The book was so fantastic. Now that I’ve finished it, some of what bothered me at the start makes sense so I really can’t fault it. I highly, highly recommend this book.
Thanks for reading,