“Three Muses” by Martha Anne Toll | Book Review

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“World War II has come and gone, and John Curtin is still grappling with his guilt over singing for the Nazi kommandant who murdered his family. He wants to set up his own psychiatry practice but can’t keep his own demons at bay, haunted by his past and a fear of music.

After the sudden loss of her mother, Katya Symanova found solace in dance lessons and worked her way into the New York State Ballet. Blinded by infatuation, she finds herself in a toxic relationship with her mentor, choreographer Boris Yanakov, who must be in control at all times.

On a trip to Paris, John receives a ticket to a brand new ballet called Three Muses, and the featured ballerina Katya enraptures him. After a brief meeting at the stage door, they cross paths again back home in New York City and immediately connect over the childhood trauma they’ve both experienced. As they open up to one another, they establish a trust that neither have experienced before. Their relationship is rapidly progressing, but, perhaps, too good to be true because Katya has a secret that could derail the budding romance. Are they destined to last or just two ships passing in the night?”

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*Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Regal House Publishing through NetGalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

The prologue introduces readers to psychiatry resident John Curtin and ballerina Katya Symanova, and we see their first meeting in Paris in 1963. The following chapters go back in time to flesh out their respective childhood trauma and young adulthood struggles, starting with eleven-year-old Janko Stein in a concentration camp and seven-year-old Katherine Sillman mourning the sudden loss of her mother. When the first few pages felt longer than they actually were, I was prepared to struggle through forty-two chapters at a snail’s pace. To my surprise, I flew through the first half in less than two days. I like the parallels between the struggles John and Katya experienced such as grief, growing up, and dating. The insights into life as a ballerina had me geeking out as a former dancer, and despite the jarring Holocaust imagery, the pieces of Jewish culture felt like a warm, familiar hug. 

The characters and character development are intriguing, but Katya’s decision-making infuriated me. Her relationship with Boris is a blindspot on purpose so I’m trying to let it go. Just know, I have many thought and many feelings. The writing is fine, but some of the transitions from scene to scene are so abrupt that it took me a moment to recalibrate as I was reading. The romance is what truly derails the story. Both John and Katya desired an emotional connection coming into their relationship, but they only connect up to a certain point. The dialogue and interactions are awkward, and beyond understanding one another over shared grief, there’s no chemistry.

The ending being what it is, my indifference towards the romance is unfortunate because it detracted from the underlying message. I understand what happened and why, but I’m not on board with the vehicle that got us there. Though John and Katya help each other find some peace, it still feels like a puzzle piece is misplaced. I can appreciate authors who take the road less traveled, but confusion is not a good feeling as a reader, especially at the end of a book that deals with such heavy subject matter. If something flew over my head, I accept that; perhaps I’m not compatible with Martha Anne Toll’s writing. The redeeming qualities earned a three-star rating, but I consider “Three Muses” a low three stars and something I don’t envision myself picking up again. I think it lacks re-readability, but it’s not a long read so give it a chance if a historical fiction romance set in post-WWII New York City with a heavy sprinkling of ballet piques your interest. Maybe you’ll glean more from it than I did.

*NOTE: The expected publication date is September 20th, 2022.

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Content Breakdown: 

*Disclaimer: I read an uncorrected ARC so certain things might be different in the final copy.

*Disclaimer 2: This section of my review is thorough and might contain SPOILERS.

Abandonment Issues: John’s mother told a Nazi soldier he could sing & begged for him to be taken somewhere where he could entertain. He didn’t understand why his mother pushed him away to be alone in the care of Nazis while she stayed with his little brother Max.

Katya didn’t find out about her mother’s alcoholism until she was older. She struggled with the revelation because it felt like her mother left on purpose, choosing alcohol over family which ultimately got her killed.

Abuse & Grooming: As a choreographer and teacher, Boris Yanakov is more hands-on than necessary, touching his dancers as much as he sees fit. While molding Katya into a prima ballerina, he touched her in inappropriate places under the guise of class corrections while she was a minor. She developed a girlhood crush and dreamed about his touch, wanting him to desire her despite an age gap of 20+ years. As an adult, she entered into a relationship with Boris, adapting to his sexually-charged creative process even though it made him behave in a frenzied manner at work and behind closed doors. He is self-centered & controlling, showing very little consideration for Katya’s feelings; he also has a reputation for sleeping with numerous women wherever he travels. He never gets violent, but there are times when he physically hurts Katya.

Example 1: When Boris wanted to leave a conversation, he squeezed Katya’s arm hard enough to make her wince despite her asking him to leave her be for a moment or two (“New York” chapter 16).

Example 2: When they slept together for the first time, Katya was a virgin, & Boris was not sensitive to that, leaving her in quite a bit of pain. She excused herself to cry in the bathroom (“Feast and Famine” chapter 13).

Alcohol & Smoking: Alcoholism, Bloody Marys, Bourbon, Cigarettes, Cigars, Drinking, Intoxication, Jack Daniels, Liquor, Smoking, Whiskey, Whiskey Sours, & Wine

Katya’s mother was an alcoholic and died while drunk. Katya tells John that she feels abandoned by her mother, and he reveals that recent science classified alcoholism as an illness, implying that her mother was sick & had little to no control over her actions.

Blood, Death, & Violence: John’s life story is told in detail throughout the book, describing his experience as a German Jew before, during, and after the Holocaust. There are mentions of Jews who died inside gas chambers, trains, & trucks as well as descriptions of dead bodies. John’s father was shot for violating curfew, & while John was the personal prisoner of a Nazi kommandant, his mother & brother Max died inside a gas chamber. When the concentration camp was seized by the Allies, John saw the remaining prisoners, all of them bald, emaciated, and disoriented.

Drunk and desperate for more alcohol, Katya’s mother was hit by a truck while crossing the street, dying instantly.

Katya falls during a performance and bleeds through her tights.

There is one mention of John attending his anatomy class and discussing the cadavers with classmates, one of which is a thirty-year-old woman who died of cancer. He describes her outer appearance and observes that her uterus shows signs of birth, meaning she left behind a child.

Brief mention of knife fights in Katya’s neighborhood

Brief mention of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination

Bullying & Insensitivty: After her mother’s death, a classmate tells Katherine she’s only being favored by Mrs. Slattery because “your mom croaked.”

Selma’s niece Rachel is described as a “short, big-breasted girl” which could be interpreted as a reference to weight or having a mature body at a young age.

When Rachel says she wants to be a teacher, Moe remarks “Nice profession for a woman.”

While learning the English language, John endured jokes about his accent and mistakes as a non-native speaker.

Maya doesn’t revere Boris Yanakov the way Katya does, calling him a variety of names such as “dictator” & “winter warhorse.” He isn’t a good man by a long shot, but these particular names coud be interpreted as culturally insensitive toward a person of Russian heritage.

Cheating: PLOT SPOILER – When Boris Yanakov & John Curtin meet, they realize that Katya has been in a relationship with both of them simultaneously.

Foster Parents: As a young teen rescued from a concentration camp with nowhere to live, John is taken in by Barney and Selma Katz, a Jewish American family.

Gossip: Before she knew the whole story about her mother’s struggles with alcohol which led to her death, Katherine heard people at church talking about it. 

Language: D*mn, G*odd*mn, H*ll, & J*sus

Loss: Barney and Selma’s son Buddy died fighting in Sicily during World War II. John’s parents and brother were killed during the Holocaust, leaving him on his own at the age of eleven. Katya’s mother died when she was seven, leaving her to be raised by a single father. Selma & John lose Barney to a sudden stroke; the gravesite service takes place in “Veiled Road” chapter 2.

Prejudice: Brief mention of a British choreographer who was thrown out of London for being homosexual

Psychiatry: I don’t have the knowledge or experience to critique how this subject was handled so I’ll just lay out what I observed:

The term “headshrinker” is used quite a few times, including by John’s college classmates in jest. 

John refers to his residency patients as “New York’s refuse pile given over to his care.” A few of them are described: Elton Miller is obsessed with the Catholic church & expects the Pope to call him. Former choir director Candida Jackson thinks she’s a singer at the Metropolitan Opera House, constantly talking about her fellow performers who don’t exist & needing to keep time to music that isn’t playing; these detailed fantasies give her headaches. There’s no description of Louisa Matthew’s condition, but after an episode of running down the halls & screaming, she’s restrained by two men while a nurse sedates her; John calls her “a living cadaver, all sinew & bone” & mentions that she has no family.

John’s training psychiatrist Dr. Roth leads him through sessions going over his childhood during the Holocaust. The process is grueling, & John thinks a dentist’s drill would be preferable. The doctor remains professionally emotionless & uses “we” as though he’s also reliving the horrific memories, irking John enough to want to quit several times. John refers to his younger self in third person & tries to show no emotion. Because he was forced to sing for a Nazi kommandant, he has an aversion to music. It’s never stated that he has PTSD, but I would assume he does, music being a major trigger. Eventually Dr. Roth pushes him to “face the music” & sing which is an extremely emotional experience. When their sessions come to an end, John knows he’s made progress, but he credits his relationship with Katya, not the doctor.

Racism & Segregation: John was rescued from the concentration camp by Black soldiers, but on the ship to America, he observes that the mess staff is Black, and the sailors are white. He later mentions that Americans refer to Black people as “n*gro*s.”

Rape: As a live-in prisoner of a Nazi kommandant, John saw female prisoners from the concentration camp enter the house and heard noises after they went upstairs with the soldiers, implying those women were being raped.

Religion: John’s biological and foster parents are Jewish so there are descriptions of Jewish holidays and the corresponding traditions.

Katherine’s mother was Catholic and attended Sunday mass, but she questioned some of Father Paul’s sermons. After her mother’s death, Katherine questioned why Jesus let such a tragedy happen. Her single father continued to take her to mass on Sundays in a small parish church. As an adult, she visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral for some peace & time to reflect.

While telling Katya about his journey to America & being taken in by a loving family, John says “It was as if the gods were looking after me.”

When John opens up to Katya about feeling like he failed his late mother, she says “I wish I could provide absolution like a priest. Jewish don’t do that, do they?” In the Catholic church, “absolution” is a formal release from guilt (obligation or punishment as well).

Sensual/Sexual: In the “Paris” prologue, John daydreams about his coworker Ann, imagining her naked body from head to toe. He observes her physical assets & mentions his attraction a few other times in the book.

After his horrific experience inside a concentration camp, John tried to replace his bad memories with good ones, imagining himself back at school mischieviously trying to look up girls’ skirts.

As a college student, John notices the way classmates and women on the train fill out their clothing, but he doesn’t know how to handle this attraction, too shy to approach one of them and broach the subject of dating. He frequently describes physical assets (breasts, legs, etc.)

After so many years under Boris’ influence, Katya considers her style & movements as a dancer as “sexual” in nature.

During a date, John feels Katya pressing her leg against his.

There are three kisses: “New York” chapters 9, 10, & 11.

There are four sex scenes: “Paris” prologue, “Feast and Famine” chapters 12 & 13, & “New York” chapter 11

There are four more brief sexual moments: “New York” chapters 2, 5, 7, & 12

Suicide: There is a brief mention of Jews who jumped out of windows when Nazis took over.

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