Durham Book Group: The Muse by Jessie Burton

Hello to all our members and welcome to Paula and Sam who joined us for their first time at our November discussion. This Monday was also my first session as co-leader and blogger with our group.

We had a rather lively discussion on Monday evening and I seem to remember a good few laughs which reflected how much we enjoyed this book and how much there was to unpick, particularly about our responses to the characters and the way the plot unfolded over juxtaposing times and places. Rachel led the discussion saying that she had been one of the members who had suggested the novel because she had enjoyed Burton’s previous book The Miniaturist, which also had a painting at the heart of its storyline. Several members thought that the mystery painting was based on a real work of art and were surprised to learn that despite using the name of a real art dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, and the legend of two Catholic saints, the painting only existed in the novel. The comment was made that the author had tricked the readers into believing in its existence. Perhaps this connects to the duplicity of the plot concerning the authenticity of the artist.

There were several tricky aspects to the novel which made it more enjoyable for many of the readers. We liked the depictions of the two stylistically drawn artistic eras, with differing preferences for one section over the other. Our discussion of 1960s London pointed towards the attention to detail, particularly in recreating Dolcis rather than a generic shoe shop. We all loved the story of the lady with no toes and would have liked to have read this as a short story within the novel. There was a lot of laughter over descriptions of London, and phrases such as, ‘well crafted’, ‘nuggets of fun’ and ‘wonderful snippets of the past’ were used to sum up these sections of the novel. We considered how the author had a tendency to use unusual descriptions and her playfulness with adjectives throughout the novel. One reader noted how language was used in an enjoyable way and she read out the following quotation as an example:

“I reached for a bread roll and rested it in my palm. It was the weight and size of a small marsupial and I had an instinct to stroke it. Feeling her eyes upon me, I plunged my thumb into the crust instead.” (p24)

It was however generally agreed that the opening chapters needed some editing as they sat in contrast to the rest of the book. This was particularly the case when considering the early depictions of Odelle. The question was raised as to why she spoke and thought with a Caribbean accent when this was not done with other characters from different countries, such as Teresa, Isaac or Harold. It was also noted that Odelle’s education would have given her a public school accent rather than the vernacular language used in the opening section of the novel.

Our discussions about 1930s Spain considered the way the author chose to write about war and her use of character. Some readers felt that the Spanish Civil War was more effectively portrayed than others. There was a subtlety about its presence which was described as in keeping with the position of an aristocratic overseas family. We had a lengthy debate over Sarah’s character which highlighted how interested we were in her past and how we wanted to know more about her motivation. We were split on whether or not to feel sympathy for a woman of her generation who despite being a wealthy heiress was trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering husband, or to question her morality towards her children. We wondered why she would leave all her money to her second husband and not to her son and why she was so distant towards her daughter. We were impressed by descriptions of her physical appearance as a way to show us her emotional state but we agreed that it would have been a very different novel if it had been written from Sarah’s point of view and we all wanted more from this fascinating character.

author-shotIsaac was the other character we discussed at length, predominantly as he was depicted as the muse from the title. In many respects we felt that Teresa was more of a muse to Olive than Isaac. This was particularly the case for the key painting where she was drawn by Olive and became her inspiration. She remains an enabler of female artistic goals and this nurturing role would suggest she is central to the creative process. We wondered if there were hints that Teresa’s emotional connection to Olive was more than friendship and if jealousy was at the base of her fatal decisions. The siblings had a strange relationship that suggested Isaac was also jealous of Teresa’s relationship to Olive. Isaac was considered by all to be the anti-hero; the exact opposite of everything that he ought to be. He was a mediocre painter who was jealous and petty about Olive’s talents, a coward who used his sister and others to protect himself and an unfaithful lover, who used both mother and daughter to bolster his ego. There was some sympathy for his relationship with Sarah as he suggested his true feelings were for her and that she needed him whereas Olive did not, however this does not excuse his behaviour towards Olive and his role in hurting all the womenfolk. Isaac was ultimately described as ‘the most despicable character in the novel’ despite Harold’s overbearing patriarchy. We noted that Olive and Sarah were oppressed by Harold which highlighted the gender gap of that period. We considered that this was around the same time frame as the Bloomsbury group and how they had created a space of artistic freedom for women which was the exception rather than the norm in Europe during the early twentieth century. We therefore enjoyed how the male characters were portrayed in the novel and how this reflected positively on the female characters.

The final part of our night was a conversation about book covers and most of the readers agreed that the Picador cover played a role in drawing them toward certain books. We noted the illusory use of symbols on this cover to highlight the themes of revolution, writing, art, creation and betrayal. We discussed how there had been a recent BBC4 programme about Virago books which had asked readers to send in pictures of the original green covers, and the difficulties women had in the art world during the 60s and 70s.

In conclusion we found The Muse an enjoyable and easy read despite themes of war and cultural displacement. Most of the readers appreciated the ‘Quick flick’ at the end of the novel (no more will be said on this to avoid plot spoilers) although there were some parts that worked more successfully than others. We enjoyed the way the painting was used to tie the two parts of the novel together, and how fact and fiction were interwoven to make us question depictions of truth, especially as it is recreated over time. Isaac was a character we loved to hate, particularly as his public persona was in complete contrast to what the reader knew. We thought some plot constructs and characters were less believable than others and would like to have heard more from the strong central female characters. The Muse generated a great discussion and therefore would be recommended as a good choice for book group readers.

We’ve decided on the next three books for our group and will be celebrating the Christmas period with a meal after our December group meeting which Alison is again kindly organising for us – details will follow and please get in touch if you wish to be included.

January Book: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

February Book: One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh

March Book: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Best wishes and hope to see you all Monday 12 December,