Three Mus­es

By – October 31, 2022

Martha Anne Toll’s debut nov­el, Three Mus­es, is a sweep­ing romance, twin­ing the lives of Katya Symano­va, a bal­le­ri­na, and John Curtin, a Holo­caust sur­vivor and new psy­chi­a­trist. Both New York­ers, the two first meet in Paris in 1963. John is vis­it­ing for a con­fer­ence, while Katya is there danc­ing with the New York State Bal­let. After reluc­tant­ly agree­ing to attend a per­for­mance of Boris Yanakov’s Three Mus­es, John is over­whelmed. The music brings him back to his child­hood in Mainz, Ger­many, and to all that he has lost. The mem­o­ries are almost too painful to bear — until Katya enters the stage as the Muse of Dis­ci­pline, and he is knocked flat by a sylph, undone by mirage.” He brings flow­ers to her stage door.

Katya, too, expe­ri­ences some­thing new that night: an own­er­ship over her danc­ing, and an eerie sense that some­one out there had under­stood her.” Fol­low­ing the per­for­mance, she takes note of the man with the white ros­es, and the stage is set for romance.

The nov­el fol­lows both Katya (née Kather­ine Sill­man) and John (née Janko) as their par­al­lel tra­jec­to­ries bring them to their seem­ing­ly fat­ed meet­ing. A younger Janko is sep­a­rat­ed from his moth­er and broth­er in an unnamed con­cen­tra­tion camp. His moth­er saves his life by secur­ing him a place in the house­hold of the camp’s kom­man­dant. Janko, orphaned by the war, renames him­self John and makes it to the US, where he tries to rec­on­cile what it means to be Jew­ish in Amer­i­ca with what it meant to be Jew­ish in Ger­many. His survivor’s guilt is crip­pling, and always he returns to mem­o­ries of his pre­war youth. He even­tu­al­ly finds his way to psy­chi­a­try, con­fronting his own trau­mas and help­ing oth­ers salve theirs.

Young Kather­ine, who has also lost her moth­er, begins bal­let lessons and finds in them her life’s pur­pose. She works her way through bal­let school and joins the New York State Bal­let under Boris Yanakov’s dis­tant, watch­ful eye. As Katherine’s star ascends, Boris renames her Katya, and the two begin a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship. Katya’s sense of artis­tic ful­fill­ment and amorous desire become enmeshed with his manipulations.

While Katya’s and John’s ren­dezvous feels fat­ed, it’s the jour­ney to their meet­ing that is most engag­ing. Their love frees them from the con­straints they’ve felt their whole lives — but it’s not enough to make their union some­thing to root for. Toll’s dia­logue is well-worn, the plot twists famil­iar. She does uti­lize cliché effec­tive­ly, how­ev­er, and there is true plea­sure and com­fort in read­ing this romance.

In plac­ing the arc of a ballerina’s career oppo­site that of a Holo­caust sur­vivor strug­gling to live in a changed world, Toll has craft­ed an engag­ing romance, with poignant reflec­tions on the rit­u­al of remembrance.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Martha Anne Toll

1. What role do the three mus­es, Song, Dis­ci­pline, and Mem­o­ry play in the book?

2. Why is Mem­o­ry the strongest muse?

3. What is your feel­ing about Frau Koch? Does she want to be where she is? How does she help Janko?

4. Dis­cuss why the two main char­ac­ters — Janko/​John and Katherine/​Katya — have name changes and what they mean.

5. All of the bal­lets in the book are fic­tion­al. What role do they have in sup­port­ing or advanc­ing the story?

6. What does Katherine/​Katya get from work­ing with Boris Yanakov? In what ways is Yanakov contradictory?

7. Dis­cuss the role of fam­i­ly in the main char­ac­ters’ lives.

8. In what ways are the themes in Three Mus­es rel­e­vant in today’s world?

9. What is your feel­ing about the end­ing of Three Mus­es? Was there anoth­er way to end it?