#ClassicandContemporary book challenge: January

#ClassicandContemporary book challenge: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Muse

The Muse

Author: Jessie Burton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Picador

Year: June 2016


It just so happens that both of my chosen books this month for the #ClassicandContemporary book challenge are dealing with art! I realised this coincidence while finishing The Muse by Jessie Burton, and it was fun to try and see if there were any similarities between the two. I definitely recommend reading them together at the same time, or one after the other, and maybe you can find some common themes as well.

The Muse is an interesting read, my overall impression is positive, even though it took quite a while to get into the book. I wouldn’t go back to re-read it, that’s for sure. It’s such a slow burner that I almost DNF’d it. There are two storylines happening some 30 years apart, one set in 1936 and the second in 1967. I honestly didn’t care what was going to happen until halfway through, when it started to gather pace, but still, I wasn’t invested in the story that much. I feel like the beginning is the most important part of a book; if you lose your reader somewhere between the first pages, it’s very hard to keep their interest going until the end. I am stubborn when it comes to finishing books, even ones that I don’t particularly like, but not everyone is that masochistic.

I am exaggerating a little bit, it wasn’t that bad, there was a mystery in the plot and it was intriguing to see how the characters got there, even though the plot twist itself was rather predictable. I guessed the outcome early on but I was curious to see how and when the two plots would intertwine. The Muse is something in the middle, boring enough for the reader to not care, but not entirely to leave it. That made reading it feel longer than usual, as it dragged on until something actually happened.

I haven’t shared the summary yet, so here it is:

‘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 . . .’

So yes, this book talks about art, its value and importance, the way it makes people behave and how it has been perceived in the past—as something that women couldn’t do, something only reserved for men. I expected a bit more of the reasons why the characters behaved that way, why they did what they did. A bit more details and rhythm to the story would also have been nice.

Despite the fabulous cover and the promising blurb, they were not enough to justify the content of this book. The main problems for me were the lack of action and a strong plot twist that is not predictable. It is good for lovers of historical fiction, but get ready for lots of pages with no action and only words contributing nothing to advance the plot. It is difficult to put into words what didn’t quite work for me, but it just seemed that The Muse drifted more and diverted too much from its purpose. The characters were another weak point, I felt like they weren’t well developed and lacked engaging personal stories and distinctive voices, so I didn’t care what happened to any of them. I wondered why one of the main characters, Odelle, had to change her accent depending on whom she talked to, it didn’t feel natural at all. Her love story wasn’t exciting either, but was rather there just for filling. She said she cared about the rest of the characters, but we never saw it in her actions, except for in the very end. It wasn’t enough to compensate for her passiveness throughout the whole book, however.

In the second storyline, the one in 1936, I didn’t understand the reasons behind Olive’s decisions. She was adamant that things happened her way, but why? Isaac was not impressive in his beliefs either. A bit more history on the Civil War that broke out in Spain would have also been appreciated by the general reader, so we can get an idea of how life was during that time. These were some of the things that I missed, background stories and explaining everyone’s motives.

In the end, The Muse grew on me, as I kept on reading and finished it after all, but I still had to make myself pick it up, it wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to doing. One thing I have to admit, though, is that it was obvious the effort and amount of research that went into writing this book. Burton definitely knows her stuff and it was really interesting to see how she got inspired from actual events and pieces of art and came up with the idea to create such an intricate story of imposture.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
(mini review)

Author: Oscar Wilde

Genre: Classics

Publisher: Ward, Lock & Co.

Year: April 1891


The Picture of Dorian Gray is an amazing read, there’s so much to share, to learn, and I think everyone should read it at least once! Here are the main themes and key things about it, as well as a few of my favourite quotes:

All I can say is that it is a classic for a reason. Even today, there’s so much of it that is still relevant and, unfortunately, true.

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution. When Dorian had finished the letter, he felt that he had been forgiven.

He shook his head. “Knowledge would be fatal. It is the uncertainty that charms one.
A mist makes things wonderful.”

You may fancy yourself safe and think yourself strong. But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a forgotten poem that you had come across again, a cadence from a piece of music that you had ceased to play—I tell you, Dorian, that it is on things like these that our lives depend.

Youth! There is nothing like it. It’s absurd to talk of the ignorance of youth. The only people to whose opinions I listen now with any respect are people much younger than myself. They seem in front of me. Life has revealed to them her latest wonder. As for the aged, if you ask them their opinion on something that happened yesterday, they solemnly give you the opinions current in 1820, when people wore high stocks, believed in everything, and knew absolutely nothing.

To finish this off, here are two quotes from The Muse and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I found to be very similar, and thought it was something curious to share.

From The Muse:

‘”What do you want in this life?” Isn’t that what you asked me, Isa? Well, I want to be useful.’
‘Art is not useful.’
‘I don’t agree. It can make a difference. It can help your cause.’

From The Picture of Dorian Gray:

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires is intensely.
All art is quite useless.

In case you need me… #owlbeereading!

Your name
Your email address
Your comment