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.
Russell Janzen is a New York-based writer and a dancer with the New York City Ballet.