In the tradition of Tracy Chevalier, A.S. Byatt, Sarah Dunant, and – more recently – Cathy Marie Buchanan, Mary Novik’s captivating second novel imagines the circumstances surrounding the creation of venerated works of art: in this case, the love sonnets of the Italian bard, Petrarch. Novik’s tale of Solange LeBlanc, fictional muse and lover of Petrarch, is set in the 14th century, during the Avignon Papacy. Brimming with political, cultural, and religious detail, Muse depicts a period of stark contrasts when soaring works of human ingenuity and creativity were produced amid social corruption, degradation, and plague.
The beguiling and clever Solange, raised in a Benedictine abbey after the death of her harlot mother, is trained as a scribe. In addition to her considerable talent, she becomes known as a clairvoyant with prophetic visions, an ability that both elevates her and puts her at risk in a superstitious age. Not suited to a cloistered life, Solange leaves the abbey and follows her ambition to live by her pen doing copy work, most significantly for the young, unknown poet Petrarch.
Though Laura de Noves is generally (though not conclusively) acknowledged as the true subject of Petrarch’s ardour, Novik’s entrancing story positions Solange not only as the inspiration for many of the poems, but also their author. As Petrarch rises to prominence, Solange is left to endure the struggles of an unmarried woman with limited means. Petrarch refuses to legitimize their relationship and offspring; in an ultimate act of betrayal, he kidnaps their son, forcing Solange to use her wit and charm to curry favour with powerful men who might help her recover the child.
At times, Muse tips into melodrama, but it highlights an intriguing and admirably resilient figure. Solange recognizes and embraces her sins, her weaknesses, and her desire for romantic and carnal love. An unexpected twist at the end exemplifies her refusal to be anything other than what she is: a flawed but very human woman.