Writing about art takes chutzpah. Synesthesia—the sound of sculpture, the words for the music—is even less easily experienced than articulated. And a novel about art must convey the beauty and mystery it chases. That’s what Sylvia Gilbertson’s The Muse pulls off.
“...in love with the loneliness of night” at a very young age, Ada “slipped into the hallway to draw Christmas trees, flying cats, birds with long purple feathers, herself like some foreign orange flame bolting off the edge of the paper.”
But by the time Ada reaches Italy to study the great masters, her imitation of them has transformed her into an imitation of herself. She hadn’t noticed, so she's shocked when her professoressa warns: “’Child,’ she said. ‘I offer you the words of Paul Gauguin. L’art est la plagiat ou la révolution. Do you understand? Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’”
Conventionality—too much pedestrian comfort—is the enemy, at least for Ada. She needs someone to light her fire. This turns out to be the leonine Michel. In his presence, she sees how “The tree trunks sharpened, flattened, and became two-dimensional, as if painted onto a giant canvas installation in some avant-garde outdoor museum.”
Like any good muse, Michel not only inspires; he teaches her to see that "the silvery bark was still smooth and taut, rippling like Michelangelo’s strong and slinky forearms and thighs. The dappled sunlight spattered them with mottled shadows that drew out their grain, their resplendent curves. They were as hard and beautiful as sex."
Michel incites Ada’s personal revolution—reclaiming the self she traded in for easier choices:
"She rolled off the bed and lay naked on the floor. The cool tiles pressed against her buttocks and the backs of her thighs, but her forehead still burned. She flung her arms up and closed her eyes. The voluptuous orange sound was bearing down on her. Then she could see it next to her, the gleaming black shape of a piano leg looming out of the color. The squirming source of music above her. A cosmic web revealed. And the world tilted."
Gilbertson fuses tradition with originality, archetype with individuality, and art with sex. It all adds up to a romp through Italy, sensuality, and the magic a muse can make.
Tip: Probe beneath the surface for the hidden connections that take novels beyond the pleasurable to the eye-opening.