Review: Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly

 

What a pleasure to have found an enjoyable self-published work of “pure” historical fiction (“pure” meaning, to me, the imagined lives of true historical figures)—my favorite type of story!  Vivaldi’s Muse is as professionally written and well put together as any mainstream-published novel of this type. This engrossing novel explores the life of Annina Giró, protégée of the prolific Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi.  The story is set in sparkling 18th-century Italy and skillfully depicts the cutthroat world of the operatic performer and the fickle musical tastes of the time…

Annina always wanted to be an opera singer, and when she meets Antonio Vivaldi when he is in residence in her hometown of Mantua, she knows exactly where she wants her future to lie. She aims to achieve that goal even as she experiences hopelessness, abandonment, and a destructive rivalry between herself and her professional nemesis, Chiara. Ultimately, through the help of a generous but lascivious benefactor, Annina is able to follow her dreams to Venice and beyond, but must pay a hefty price for these dreams…

Author Sarah Bruce Kelly brings the musical world of 18th-century Venice alive. The author herself is a professional musician and scholar of music history, and one couldn’t imagine a more suitable author to write this book, as the love and passion for her subject is deeply embedded in this story. The fine details about the business and the art of the opera, the portrayal of Venice herself as a major character, the affecting and sensitively rendered descriptions of Vivaldi and Annina and their evolving relationship, as well as the strong sense of atmosphere and foreboding, have been well executed, allowing everyone—not just aficionados of Vivaldi’s music or the opera—to enter into this private world.

Annina’s victimization by and the intense and vicious rivalry with Chiara is faintly reminiscent of the relationship between Chiyo and Hatsumomo in Arthur Golden’s wonderful Memoirs of a Geisha. The animosity between the rivals kept the level of tension in the story high in Memoirs, and does the same for Vivaldi’s Muse. This reader would  have enjoyed learning more in depth about Chiara—what made her act so abominably and with such commitment to Annina’s downfall..

The author also adroitly illustrates the extroverted, hot-headed nature of the Venetians, as exemplified in this humorous exchange between gondoliers witnesseJd by Annina and her sister Paolina:

 “Bauko!” shrieked one gondolier, “you idiot! You’ve wrecked my boat!”

“Ti xe goldon!” rejoined the other, “you ass! It was my right to enter the canal first!”

Fury mounted and they reviled each other as the offspring of assassins and prostitutes.

“Spawn of a bloody executioner!”

“Bastard of a hideous whore!”

Fists waved and pounded into palms, and faces contorted. With a vehemence that would make the devil blush, they each defamed the other’s female relatives down to the remotest cousin. Finally, his passion spent, one of the men calmly gathered his oar and gave the other the right of way. (p 54)

What wonderfully descriptive writing!

In fairness, I must mention a few minor distractions that I noticed in the text—one being that the writing occasionally glides quickly over events in a “talking rather than showing” manner. I do realize that the number of concerts or events covered in this time period were substantial and that, given the size of the book at over 400 pages, something had to give, but I did find this device a bit distracting.

I found very few—perhaps four or five—typos in the book, but they were significant enough to draw me out of the story for a few minutes each. I think one more copy edit would correct that problem. And finally, there are moments in the novel when a modern phrase slips in, something so out of character for the 18th century that I had to pause. For example, the phrase “now she was talking” (taken as contemporary jargon rather than a literal phrase) on pg 242 was a bit of a shock. Another was on pg 269: “’Blast,’ he thought, ‘the party is underway!’” I don’t know if this Briticism was used in 18th-century Venice…

Despite these minimal distractions, I highly recommend Vivaldi’s Muse. Once again, I don’t understand why a mainstream publisher would bypass an engaging work like this one. With professional marketing and a snappier cover design, this delightful and absorbing novel would be an irresistible find on any bookstore shelf.

Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly. Bel Canto Press, 2012, 437 pp, paperback, 978-0983630401

Disclaimer: A copy of the novel was sent to me gratis from the author.

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2 responses

  1. A note on the use of the exclamation “Blast.” The term is an English translation of the the Italian (Latin based) “maledetto,” which literally means “accursed,” but has been used for centuries in Italy as a mild expletive that can be translated as “Curses,” “Blast” or “Damn.”

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