If you ever chuckled when you heard the phrase battle of the sexes," thinking to yourself, that's no battle, child," Francine Prose's book might make you reconsider. In The Lives of the Muses, Prose explores nine of the most tortured, devious relationships known to art and science. But instead of focusing on the famed artist in each couple, she looks at his lover, spouse or eroticized friend the artist/thinker's muse, in other words.

People who saw Sharon Stone in the screen hit The Muse may scoff at the idea of a woman who can channel brilliant ideas to a genius. But, for Prose, there's no getting around the role that women have played in bringing to fruition some of the world's great masterpieces, from Samuel Johnson's dictionary to the surrealist fantasies of Salvador Dali to the song lyrics of John Lennon.

Contemporary readers may find Prose's chapter on Yoko Ono the most interesting. Was she the bloodsucker so many Beatle fans painted her to be, or did she inspire Lennon to think outside the rock and roll box? The truth lies somewhere in the gray area between those two extremes, Prose thinks. She wonders out loud how much of the contempt for Ono was racial prejudice and misogyny masquerading as compassion for John.

Lou Andreas-Salome will be less well-known to Prose's readers, but she is arguably the most interesting and eclectic of Prose's subjects. Andreas-Salome was a serial muse whose life intersected meaningfully with Frederick Nietszche, poet Rainer Rilke and Sigmund Freud. She liked to juggle two men at a time, while steadfastly refusing to have sex with anybody, including her husband, until her mid-30s when she entered into an extramarital affair with Rilke, who was 10 or so years her junior.

Prose's fascinating book sheds light on a group of extraordinary women who filled a variety of roles some were lovers; some just friends. Some sought money and recognition, while others went after the ephemeral something akin to spiritual insight. In the end, what they all seemed to share was a deep, abiding hunger to be more than ordinary. And so they were. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

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