Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa

The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa is a book with many layers that combine to create a rich story about a diva and the few who would go to great lengths to preserve her memory. Mercè Casals is a well-known soprano who late in life decides to tell her life story, and unknown freelance writer Mark Lockwood is chosen to be her ghostwriter. After spending several months listening to her memories, Lockwood feels a closeness to her -- and to her nurse, Perla, with whom he would like to start an affair. When Casals is found dead in her bathtub, Lockwood's agent says he needs to hand over the interview tapes so that a more accomplished writer can pen the biography. Lockwood understands that Casals' death gives him an opportunity to achieve fame and fortune, but beyond that, his obsession with the diva's story prompts him to go on the run with the tapes so he can continue to write the story himself.

It can be difficult to gauge the characters, with Lockwood shifting from wanting his unhappy wife to wanting Perla, and it is hard to tell Perla's feelings for Lockwood. Readers also are introduced to Orson, a man who likes to pay tribute to Casals by dressing in costume and mimicking her performances, and Nolan Keefe, the philandering tenor and ex-husband of Casals. But the most captivating character of them all is the diva herself.

Rabasa uses an interesting structure to tell Casals' story, beginning with her death, going back to her interviews with Lockwood, then mixing chapters from Lockwood's book, The Wonder Singer, with the interactions of Lockwood, Perla, Orson, and Nolan as the book is being written. My favorite parts of the book involved Casals' interviews with Lockwood and the chapters devoted solely to various parts of her life, from her abandonment at age 9 to her experiences during the Spanish Civil War and her affair with an exiled prince. Rabasa's prose is beautiful and poetic and his descriptions so vivid, especially when Casals is speaking.

"Any fears, Señora?"

"To be old and weak and generally burdensome. To look like Jell-O with my clothes off. And like an overdressed blimp with them on. To have a brain that forgets and eyes that blur and a voice that cracks."

"Aging is unavoidable."

"I should have died years ago. At forty-seven, to be exact. I sang in Madama Butterfly, so petite, so happy-happy and sad-sad, so delicate and vulnerable and pitiful. I looked like Cio-Cio-San's mother in a kimono the size of a circus tent. I died on stage. I died in the reviews. I should have died in my hotel room." (page 70 in the hardcover edition)

Around the basement, narrow air openings allowed a view of the pavement. All I could see through them were feet. Throughout '37 and '38, I used to sit in the safety of the basement and try to figure out what was happening by how people walked. They strolled under the sun. Ran from the rain. Toppled under the bombing. When I think of the war, I think of shoes. Men's shoes and women's shoes and children's shoes. Military boots goose-stepping to a sharp drumbeat. Glossy bourgeois ankle boots and wingtips in the English style. The shoes of dead feet and wounded feet and running feet.

A child's foot inside a yellow sock, twitching outside its shoe which has slipped off when she'd tripped and fallen.

A bloody clump amid shreds of brown leather after several bursts from a Thompson repeater sprayed the street. The other foot was still inside a glossy cordovan. That was how I knew the foot belonged to Señor Cantarra, the pharmacist. He was very careful about his appearance. (page 154 in the hardcover edition)
Casals is larger than life, and Rabasa's words bring her to life on the page. I could see why Lockwood was captivated by her, and as a writer, I could understand Lockwood's determination to finish the work they started together.

The Wonder Singer is a song in itself, bringing readers from low notes to high notes and back again. It is a wonderfully complex character-driven story that shines in the hands of a talented writer. I definitely plan to read more of Rabasa's work in the future.

I hope you all will come back tomorrow for my interview with George Rabasa.

The Wonder Singer also was reviewed by:

Medieval Bookworm
Morbid Romantic
Bookfoolery and Babble
Booking Mama

If you've also reviewed it, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Wonder Singer from Unbridled Books for review purposes.


Serena said...

I am on the tour for this one...I really liked this review. Thanks!

Blodeuedd said...

It sounds interesting, but the book for, only way to know is to read, lol

pamwax said...

Your review has peaked my interest.

teabird said...

What a beautiful writeup! I love your reviews.

Julie P. said...

Fabulous review. I wrote mine this morning and I've afraid to post it after reading yours!

Lenore Appelhans said...

Wow! This is the best review I have read in awhile. Really makes me want to read this book asap :)

Kailana said...

I was saying on another review of this book that I really like the cover. :)

bermudaonion said...

Great review. I'm wondering if this story is based on a real person.

S. Krishna said...

This sounds like a really interesting book! Thanks for the review!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'll look forward to hearing more about this one. I love music but I'm not sure this would have been one to draw my attention (which I guess is the point of a blog tour, huh?). A very well-written review!

Belle said...

What a lovely review. This sounds like a good read.

Cheryl Gebhart said...

A great review - sounds like a really good book. Must add it to my list.

And thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting!

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read this one. I just love that it's about an opera diva.

Bookfool said...

Excellent review, Anna! I wish I was more succinct. I like your review much better than my own.

Teddy Rose said...

I was wondering about this one. Thanks for the excellent review! This one is going on my TBR.

Lisa (Southern Girl Reads) said...

What a great review, Anna! This sounds like such a great story. I'll have to be looking for this one.

Anna said...

Serena: Can't wait to hear what you think of it.

Blodeuedd: Very true, but I think you're a pretty good judge of books that aren't your cup of tea just from reading the descriptions.

Pam: Great! Hope you get a chance to read this one.

Teabird: Thanks so much!

Julie: Thanks! I'm looking forward to reading yours.

Lenore: Thanks! If you read it, let me know. I'd love to hear what you think.

Kailana: I like the cover, but the hardcover version with the peacock in the middle of the room is my favorite.

Bermudaonion: After reading my interview with the author, I don't think it is. But I could be wrong about that.

S. Krishna: Thanks! Hope you get a chance to read it.

Sandy: Thanks! I was drawn more to book because it's about a writer than a singer, but I ended up really enjoying the musical aspects of it.

Belle: Thanks!

Scrappy Cat: Thanks! Hope you get a chance to read it.

Carol: I bet you'd enjoy this one. Let me know if you read it.

Bookfool: Thanks! I appreciate the compliment, but give yourself more credit...your reviews are great!

Teddy Rose: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it.

Lisa: Thanks! Please let me know if you read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

This sounds really good! Thanks for the terrific reviews.

Anna said...

Care: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Hope you get a chance to read the book.