BOOK REVIEW: The Museum of Modern Love

By Heather Rose

“…in truth, pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time.”


Marina Abramović is a living woman whose life and work have been skilfully interwoven into the narrative of Heather Rose’s 2017 Stella prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love – a book the writer describes as “a strange hybrid of fact and fiction”.

A Serbian-born performance artist, Abramović is renowned for her endurance pieces, often exploring physical limits and mental possibilities. Rose’s story orbits her 2010 exhibition, The Artist is Present, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in which she sat perfectly still at a table, in silence, for 75 days while members of the public took turns to sit opposite and gaze into her eyes.

The fictional characters in this story are those who come to participate in (or merely watch) the performance, some of whom are facing emotional challenges in their lives. Arky Levin, for instance, is a film composer separated from his sick wife, who has asked him to keep a troubling promise. Unable to settle to his work he one day wanders into The Atrium at MoMA and is mesmerised by Marina Abramovic’s bizarrely powerful installation. He begins to attend every day, simply to watch the artist and the people with whom she interacts. He meets others drawn to the exhibit, and gradually makes decisions about what he must do to move on with his life.

Others include the recently widowed Jane Miller, a middle school art history teacher from Georgia; Brittica van der Sar, a Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic; and Healayas Breen, a stunningly beautiful art critic and singer raised as a Muslim in Paris – every one of them, for a variety of reasons, susceptible to Abramovic’s unfathomable aura.

Narrated by an unknown but benevolent storyteller, Rose’s extraordinary novel raises questions about humanity, intimacy and the creative imagination. It’s a cerebral work that resonates with intense but concealed emotion and challenges the reader’s perceptions of the boundaries between art and life.

This is the Australian author’s seventh novel – her first being White Heart published in 1999. The Museum of Modern Love took 11 years to write, and in that time, she met Abramović only once, although she took part in the original performance on four occasions. She sought and was given permission by the artist to include her as a character in the book. Abramović was reportedly “pleased” with the finished novel.

Every song, every painting, every book, every idea that changed the world – all these things came from the unknowable and beautiful void.”

Many thanks to Orion Publishing Group for providing an advance review copy of this title.


I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019

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40 replies

  1. I bought a copy of this just the other day. Very much looking forward to reading it. Great review, Paula.

  2. What an intriguing sounding book! 😀

  3. I agree, it’s extraordinary.

  4. Never seen Abramovic’s installations live, but I’ve been intrigued by her and read quite a bit about her art. This novel promises a different approach and sounds quite captivating!

  5. It’s wonderful. (It won a major prize here in Australia too).

  6. Beautiful review, Paula. Good to see an Aussie in there! I read this novel a couple of years ago and thought it a deserving winner of several Australian awards although I think I’m more partial to her earlier works like The River Wife.

    • Thank you so much, Gretchen. I hadn’t previously come across Heather Rose but will definitely seek out more of her work after reading this novel. Very few of her works seem to have been published in the UK, so winning the Stella will probably bring her a wider readership. I must look out for The River Wife. 😊

  7. That’s great, Paula, I admire your eclectic reading spirit 🙂

    I think it took a while to get an overseas publisher on board so maybe the rest will follow.

  8. This is the type of book I would never have encountered but for the blogging world. (The second time I’ve said that recently.) I would never have bothered with the blurb beyond the first sentence. Here is where a trusted blog reviewer comes to the fore! It sounds fascinating – mesmerising perhaps (as I imagine this piece of performance art must have been). One to seek out and be challenged by. Thanks Paula! 😊

    • I know what you mean, Sandra. I’ve read all sorts of books that I would never have likely come across if it hadn’t been for the book blogging community. Informal groups of this sort can be a real force for good, bringing people with similar interests together from all parts of the world. Maria Donovan made a similar comment when we were chatting on Twitter a couple of days ago. 😊

  9. Thanks for such an informative review, Paula, and particular the opening quote. An author I suspect I need to seek out.

    • There must be so many other talented authors like Heather Rose who become well-known in their country of origin but don’t reach the wider reading-world, unless, like her, they win one or more of the big national prizes. I could almost have lifted a line from every paragraph in her book to use as a quotation in this post – she has so much to say about life, art and where the two converge. I wouldn’t suggest this book to someone who likes a fast-paced, action-filled novels, but if you go for deep, insightful fiction, it’s one I would highly recommend. 😊

  10. Hello. My TBR list is about 500 pages long. I’ve added this novel to it!

    Neil Scheinin

  11. I’m not a lover of installation art so that ‘exhibition’ would have had me rolling my eyes…… The book sounds much more interesting though

  12. I ordered this from Australia after Kate’s review when it won the Stella and it looked like there were no plans to publish it here. Usually my memory for novels is awful – I’ll remember tone and themes and how I felt reading it, but plot etc always goes! This really stayed with me and you’ve absolutely captured why. It’s such a well written, unique, humane book.

  13. So glad you enjoyed this too Paula. It’s wroth seeing the documentary about the installation – Marina Abramović: The artist is present – I’m not sure if it’s still available on line (as the site on which I saw it only had it for a couple of months) but while you don’t need it to enjoy the book it is really mesmerising to actually see the performance, and realise how well Rose captured it and turned it into something provocative. This was not her first book, but it’s the one that propelled her into Aussie readers’ consciousness. So glad, it is now published elsewhere.

  14. What a intriguing concept for an art installation. art piece, which makes a very novel backdrop for a book. The fact that it’s cerebral and covers deeper facets of human life sounds fascinating to me so I’ll make a note of this. Concisely reviewed 🙂
    Caz xx

  15. I’ve heard this is very good, and have watched the video of her performing. It’s fascinating to watch!

  16. This is on my TBR. But the Stella Prize is one of those prizes that I diligently watch every, note every title for it, and then, promptly (it would seem), ignore. *sigh* I’ve been saying this for a couple of years now – I really need to make more time for Australian writers. They’re awesome.

  17. I hadn’t picked up on this one. I’ve had a spate of fiction based on real people recently and am enjoying it as another way of viewing reality, so I’m going to see if The Museum of Modern Love is stocked by my local library.

    You’re going great on your reading list. I really wish I’d limited myself to 10! I’ve managed 3 of mine, but have been sidetracked by two library books and Wimbledon. That’s my excuse, anyway!


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