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‘Three Muses’: In Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel a Holocaust survivor manages the complex burdens of memory and love

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Martha Anne Toll
Martha Anne Toll

In Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, “Three Muses,” a Holocaust survivor reinvents himself in the United States and falls in love with a ballerina he first saw in Paris. Their worlds collide in New York City. Will he find love and salvation or only more loss?

Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel introduces us to Janko Stein. His parents and little brother were murdered by the Nazis, and he is taken to a concentration camp where he is forced to work in the kitchen and sing for the commandant. He somehow survives and begins life anew in the United States where he is adopted by a Jewish family who lost their own son in World War II. Janko becomes John Curtin, a name he chose for himself. It is one of the only major things in his life he has been able to orchestrate and choose for himself.

Katherine Sillman changed her name, too, to Katya Symanova, but that act had nothing to do with independence or the freedom of self-selection. It is a name given to her by her demanding and controlling choreographer, Boris Yanakov.

Worlds collide when John spies Katya on the stage in Paris. He so much as falls in love with her and cannot stop thinking about her, holding her up as his ideal partner. Somehow their paths cross again in New York City.

All the while, each is dealing with a kind of generational trauma. He possesses a survivor’s guilt and cannot escape the demons of the torturous existence in the camps.

Katya has her own secret pain. Her mother was an alcoholic who died in a terrible accident.

John and Katya are burdened by memories. They find a certain kind of peace each in the other. But can compassion—or even love— win when each is still battling so much grief?

Yvette Benavides is an associate editor of TPR News and TPR Noticias and the host of the Book Public podcast. She is a professor of English and creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University and an editor-at-large with Trinity University Press. She is a founding member of the advisory council of the San Antonio Book Festival and serves on the editorial boards of Story magazine and Asterix journal. She co-authored the book San Antonio 365: On This Day in History with David Martin Davies. Her essays and stories have been published widely, including in the Bellevue Literary Review and Huizache magazine.Her radio commentaries have been recognized with First Amendment awards from the Society of Professional Journalists Fort Worth Chapter and from the Public Media Journalists Association. She was a Scripps Howard fellow in entrepreneurial journalism in 2018 and a PRX Knight Foundation fellow in podcasting in 2020. With David Martin Davies, she was a 2022 USC Center for Health Journalism fellow in reporting on healthy equity and health systems. She is a longtime book reviewer for the San Antonio Express News.