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Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse

This was a pretty good book, the downside is that I felt it should have been even better.

The action of the story is divided between 1960s London and 1930s Spain.

We begin in London where we meet Odelle.  Odelle is an aspiring writer who has immigrated to London from the West Indies.  After a few unsatisfying years working in a shoe shop she gets a better job as a typist at a top art dealers.  Here she meets the enigmatic and charismatic Marjorie Quick.  The arrival of a mysterious painting upsets Quick and awakens Odelle’s curiosity about both the painting and Quick’s relation to it.  The story then jumps back to 1930s Spain on the eve of Civil War where we find out about the creation of the painting.

In 1930s rural Southern Spain we meet the Schloss family and their brother and sister Spanish servants Teresa and Isaac.  The Schloss family are parents Sarah and Harold and teenage daughter Olive, they are from a British and Austrian background and have just arrived in Spain.  There are a myriad of tensions in this household: Olive is attracted to Isaac and they share an ambition to become artists, Harold is conducting a secret affair that young Teresa accidentally discovers, beautiful and glamourous Sarah suffers from depression and possibly alcoholism, Teresa is drawn to Olive and is jealous of the attention Olive is giving her brother…and on top of all this Civil war is brewing…basically there is a lot going on!

This is quite a plot driven piece and it’s hard to say more without risking spoilers (which I don’t want to do as this is definitely worth reading for yourselves).  The Spanish plot is compelling and keeps you wanting to know what happens next.  But we keep jumping back to the 1960s which is a bit irritating as it is rather dull in comparison.  I don’t think Burton convinced me at any stage of the necessity for Odelle to be in this story, we don’t need her to reveal the 1930s action as the author can tell us that without Odelle discovering clues to what did or didn’t happen.  Odelle has potentially a good story of her own, coming to Britain, facing racism and struggle to establish herself, but this story does not really get room to breathe – if Burton wants to tell that story she should have given Odelle her own book and not tried to shoehorn her into to a story mainly about art and the Spanish Civil War.  Burton tries to imply that the stories of Olive and Odelle are linked as they are both creative young women struggling with their art in different times, but I think each story was strong enough to stand alone and the piece is weakened by trying to slot them together somehow.

I think Burton introduces an interesting situation in Spain with intriguing characters but doesn’t quite develop either characters or plot quite fully enough (I had a similar criticism of the Miniaturist, although I think The Muse is much better).  I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed (not something I often say as I am generally a fan of short books).  It is good, but felt a little rushed and underdone.  Jessie Burton is a good writer through and imaginative – I would definitely read more of her work, I just think she should be more ambitious, there were all the ingredients for a great epic tale here rather than just an enjoyable OK story.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

improb love

This book had a pretty good plot.  It concerns the rediscovery and sale of an 18th century French masterpiece called The Improbability of Love.  The novel opens on the night of the auction where we learn about all the fuss and attention of the sale and we also learn a little about the people buzzing round the painting; potential buyers and those hoping to profit directly or indirectly from the sale.  Then the novel jumps back 6 months to the initial discover of the painting in a junk shop then moves us through the identification of the painting and the discovery by certain characters of it’s very dark history and then back to where we opened on the night of the sale.  Along the way we have; romance, struggles with alcoholism, sex, greed, lies, a woman arrested and imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, Nazism, murder…and more!  Sounds like rollicking good read?  Well unfortunately it’s just really badly executed.

A major problem is that there are too many characters and most of the characters don’t play a part in the actual story.  We learn all about the backgrounds and wealth and…wardrobes of the incidental billionaires and millionaires hoping to purchase the painting but this knowledge doesn’t take us anywhere or achieve anything.  I guess Rothschild is trying to establish just how important the discovery of this painting is by showing us how many people are effected and involved but the problem with all her characters is that they are either A – totally boring, or B – totally over the top and not slightly believable or C – totally boring AND over the top and not slightly believable (mostly they are C).

Aside from all the bit parts we do have a couple of main characters at the heart of the tale.  Jesse and Annie are the innocent romantic leads unwittingly caught up in the chaos around the painting.  Annie is the young down at heel cook who buys the painting as a birthday present for a date who stands her up and Jesse is a struggling artist she bumps into in a gallery a little later who is helping her identify her mystery painting.  A bigger pair of sappy dull wet fish are difficult to imagine.  Reading about the development of their relationship and growing connection and attraction is the least sexy thing I have read since…Mein Kampf!  She is just a saintly goody two shoes with ‘victim’ written all over her (aside from discovering the painting she is nursing an alcoholic mother and her own broken heart from the end of a long term relationship) and he, well we don’t really know too much about him other than that he has floppy hair and a “slightly feminine mouth” and that he fell totally in love with Annie’s goodness and sweetness the second he laid eyes on her and will do anything to help (YUK!)

Most of the characters are mega rich, the leads are the only exception but are as about as convincing a picture of working class life as you’d find in a Richard Curtis script.  Annie comes to London after being dumped by her long term romantic and business partner in Devon.  She has no connections and no formal qualifications as she ran her own catering business with her older boyfriend from the age of 16, she has no references either as it would be a bit awkward asking her ex!  So what does she do when she arrives in London?  Find a room to rent in a shared property using Gumtree ?  Get a few zero hours shifts at a Sports Direct while getting a cleaning gig in the evening to pay the rent? NO!  She rents an entire one bedroom flat to herself (in London…in 2015…) and somehow gets a job as an assistant to a world famous film director – as you do!  The job is lowly but obviously flings her into the orbit of the rich and influential, her connection with the film director gets her a job as a chef with his wife, an art dealer, which then gets her catering gigs with the great and the good.  Honestly, rich people must think us down here are all mugs wasting our time complaining about minimum wage and job seeker’s allowance when apparently it’s that easy to go from nothing to being quite successful with only hard work, talent and goodness in your armoury.  It had the massive chip on my shoulder itching and throbbing painfully.

I considered quitting this book many times.  But the plot kept me in there as I was curious to find out what happened to the painting, but you know what they say about curiosity?  Don’t make the mistake I did, save yourself the pain and don’t get started.

 

1/5

Zoe

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The Muse by Jessie Burton is the 2018 Cityread book

The Muse by Jessie Burton (Pan Macmillan) has been chosen as the book for Cityread London 2018. The title will be the centre of a month-long celebration of reading in the capital, starting on 30 April and running throughout May.  Cityread is a huge city-wide book group which aims to help Londoners explore and celebrate their city through its stories.

The Muse cover

The Muse opens in London 1967, where we meet Odelle Bastien, recently arrived from Trinidad and trying to make her way in a new country.  A new job at the Skelton Institute of Art brings a mysterious painting, and even more enigmatic colleague, into her life.  We are then transported to Spain, 1936, and meet Olive Schloss, and we begin to discover how the painting came into being, against the turbulent backdrop of Spain on the eve of civil war.

Taking Burton’s depictions of 1960s London and 1930s Spain as a starting point, a programme of events exploring The Muse’s themes of arrival, the creative process, art history and family secrets will take place in Brent Libraries (and indeed across London!) throughout May.  Highlights will include:

  • A life drawing art workshop on Tuesday 8 May
  • A Spanish cookery class on Thursday 10 May
  • A history talk about the Moors of Spain on Wednesday 16 May
  • An art history talk, Guernica and beyond, looking at the art of the Spanish Civil War on Tuesday 22 May

We will also be holding a competition for the best book review of The Muse with some exciting themed prizes!

For full details of our events look out for our special brochures, keep an eye on our online events lists or email libraries@brent.gov.uk

Jessie Burton

“I’m truly delighted that The Muse will be London’s Cityread for 2018. It’s a novel that celebrates the diversity, humour and spirit of Londoners – both those who were born here and those welcomed in to make it their home. It’s an honour to support our city’s libraries and to be reminded of their incomparable value, and I can’t wait for new readers to find my story of Odelle and Olive, and make it their own.”

Jessie Burton

 

Further details of all Cityread London activity can be found at the website:

www.cityread.london and at Facebook/CityreadLondon

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