Muse is Mary Novik’s second novel, and once again she takes us into the past. Her earlier work Conceit tells the imagined story of John Donne’s daughter. Muse takes us to the first half of the fourteenth century and the Avignon of the popes. Its narrator Solange is writing her “own Life to set the record straight, a livre du voir-dire in which . . .[her] sins speak loudly in their own defence” (320).
Solange’s life takes her from the stews of Avignon to the Benedictine Abbey of Clairefontaine, from which she flees to become one of the best of Avignon’s scribes and manuscript illuminators. There she becomes the mistress of Pope Clement VI before returning to Clairefontaine. It is not Pope Clement, however, who is the great love of Solange’s life but Francesco Petrarca, often referred to as the Father of Renaissance Humanism and known to English speakers as Petrarch.
In Muse’s Solange, Novik imagines the woman who bore Petrarch’s two children. On her website, she discusses “balancing fact and fiction” (http://www.marynovik.com/backstory/backstory-for-muse/balancing-act-between-fact-and-fiction-in-muse/) and explains how she addresses this issue in her novel. I would have found this discussion about the tension between fact and fiction very useful as an appendix to the novel itself. I would also have liked some indication in the book of just what resources Novik had consulted. There were times when I found I was putting the book down and running either to my bookshelves or to the ever-present web to check on context. I am possibly being over pedantic in wondering so much about what one might call the “facts” of the case, but I didn’t always find Solange’s story itself sufficiently compelling to read without pausing to wonder about historical veracity. Initially, I felt as if the book were just a sequence of events, things that happened one after another. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps I needed richer interior action. I didn’t actually start to empathise with Solange until the latter part of the novel, when I wanted to keep on reading because by then I did want to know how the work would reach a resolution.
In her creation of Solange, Novik does achieve a balance between fact and fiction that is believable. What Novik suggests could be the story of the woman who bore Petrarch’s children rings true as does the evocation of the novel’s setting.
As, no doubt, you can see, I am somewhat ambivalent about this novel. As I said earlier, I did not fully empathise with Solange until the latter part of the book. Where I found the novel most engaging was in the questions it raises: why is it that we know of Petrarch’s children, even their names, Francesca and Giovanni, but we don’t know the name of their mother, if we assume as Novik does that they shared a mother? What does this absence underscore about the status of women in the fourteenth century? Who really is Petrarch’s Muse? How important is the written narrative to the construction and understanding of history? Muse draws attention to the speculative nature of the historical novel as a genre and to the responsibilities of the writer who sets his or her work in the past. What are the limits on a writer’s imagination and his or her obligations when putting words into the mouths of people who once existed? Perhaps most of all, Muse draws attention to the power of biography and autobiography and to the whole question of the construction of narrative truth.