Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress
Published by Ballantine
Publication date: July 12, 2022
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Literary
The bucolic landscape surrounding Wrynn College of Art a private, elite school in New England disguises an atmosphere of intensity in Antonia Angress’ novel, Sirens & Muses. Louisa and Karina are sophomores and roommates, but that’s where their surface commonality ends. Louisa is from New Orleans and can only afford school through loans and part-time jobs. Karina is from NYC and her parents are well-known in the art world as collectors—and donors to the school. One other student, Preston, a senior who’s found success running a website and creating anti-capitalist performance art and a visiting professor, Robert, an artist whose career has wound down to teaching, round out a group of strangers who will collide in a way that throws them all off course in their lives.
Angress creates several tension points in Sirens & Muse. The dynamic between Louisa and Karina starts off frosty, with the unspoken barrier of not just wealth between the two, but the fact that Louisa is a more traditional artist, while Karina is conceptual. And while the two girls have different backgrounds, they are similar in their struggle to define themselves. Before too long, a friendship has arisen that soon turns into an intense romantic relationship. A relationship that involves Karina as Louisa’s muse in a new series of paintings. This is further complicated by the school’s most prestigious event—the Winter Exhibition, which draws gallerists and collectors alike and offers a cash prize. A prize Louisa needs if she is going to be able to stay in school.
For Preston and Robert, the tension is more straightforward—the alpha male battle for supremacy. Robert is descending in the art world while Preston, despite his anti-capitalist rhetoric is desperate to ascend. In a misguided attempt to wrest control back in his classroom, Robert writes a letter to the editor of Artforum, the industry’s largest publication, complaining about the “new” art and Preston’s website in particular. This infuriates Preston even as he wonders if he is in fact a real artist. In an effort to prove himself he goes a step too far in what he calls “art”. The aftermath is upheaval for all four as they spin out into separate lives, all trying to find or hold onto their creative spark, but still make a living.
Sirens & Muses works as a literary mural, filled with scenes detailing the many aspects of art, from its creation to what it means in the digital age. All are splashed against a background that is less about collaboration and vision, and more about misogyny, betrayal, encroachment, and being cutthroat to survive. Angress skillfully plays these themes out in her characters’ personal and professional lives, for a compelling, intimate debut.
If you love fiction about art, but want something lighter than the struggle, try Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Ballantine Books in exchange for an honest review.*